In today’s article, I’d like to pose a fundamental question. Has the growth of social media been a net positive or negative for the world of photography?
Let's start today’s discussion with a few basic agreements. Social media is here to stay, so wishing away its existence or trying to wait for it to go away is a waste of time. I spent years hoping reality TV would be a flash in the pan. Decades later, you see how far that’s gotten me. So, even though I have mixed feelings about social media, I have fully accepted that it is as much a fact of life going forward as public utilities or the seventh inning stretch.
Also, while much of this essay will concern social media’s effect on one’s ability to make a living through photography, it also must be accepted that to ignore social media altogether is simply not an option for working professionals these days. How exactly you use social media is variable. But, as bad as I might want to, I can’t simply bury my head in the sand and stay off of every platform. So regardless of the answer to the question posed above, we will be on social media for some time to come.
As I’m writing this intro, I am reminded of the words once spoken by a motivational speaker I was listening to. He implored the audience to stop thinking of life as something that happens “to” you and start thinking of life as something that happens “for” you. This small shift in philosophy won’t change the tactile facts of a given situation. But, if one is to look at life as something that is happening on their own behalf, it allows us to envision the rapidly changing events of the world around us to all be working in our favor. At that point, it’s simply a matter of being able to learn to ride the waves rather than fighting against them.
I’m reminded of that quote because riding those waves is something we’ve all had to contend with. This is true if you are a professional photographer or someone with little interests in the arts at all. The playing field is constantly adjusting its boundaries. The trick is trying to continue to find the endzone.
So let’s have a look at the question above. Like most things in life, there is no real clear-cut answer. But it would behoove us to have a look at some of the ways in which social media has changed the photography world for good and for ill.
More Ways to Get Our Work Seen
I remember years ago I was doing a test shoot with a friend of mine. She was one of those models who had long since graduated from the role of hired employee and risen into the realm of muse. Every single time I got to shoot her, my creativity just exploded. At that particular point in my photographic journey, I was on a low note. Business was slow. Wasn’t sure what I wanted to do creatively. I was floundering a bit. I tend to try to shoot my way out of the doldrums, so I set up a test shoot with her for no other reason than to be creative. She had semi-retired from modeling after more than a few bad experiences with male photographers and overly aggressive male fans. But she and I had become more than just colleagues, so she was willing to come out and play.
We went about our shoot and got some solid results. Not my best work, but during a time of fallow inspiration, I was just happy to finally have something to post on my Instagram feed. But after I began posting the images the following week, I got a call from my friend requesting that I stop showing the work. She didn't necessarily have a problem with the images. But, apparently, unbeknownst to me, she was going through some things in her own life and was having serious second thoughts about having any photographs of her at all in the public domain. This caught me off guard, and I’d like to say I handled it better than I did, but after a series of difficult conversations, I ultimately agreed to take down what I had posted.
Clearly, she was going through something. And, as I really did care for her as a person, I felt that burying the photoshoot was the right thing to do. But I will also admit that doing so was extremely painful for me to do. More painful than is logically expected. It’s not like these were the greatest shots I ever took. They never made it anywhere near my portfolio and you won’t find them online anywhere today. So, it’s not like it was a huge creative loss.
I investigated my own reaction to the situation, and what I learned was how important it was to me to have the art I create seen by the world. I’m someone who expresses myself through my art. I live through my art. My art is my voice. Sure, I make art for the sake of art (and to make a living). But it is also important to me personally that the art be shared. Otherwise, it feels like a genie trapped in a bottle. So much magic to offer but forced into the exile of anonymity.
Social media has provided a platform for millions of artists around the world to have their voices heard. It might not be the same as having an exhibition at a famous museum. But social media is a place where everyone gets to release their art into the world without limitation. And, for some, that release is as important as the art itself.
Harder to Get Your Work Seen
Wait, what? How can social media make it both simultaneously easier and harder to get one’s work seen? We’ve just spent several paragraphs discussing how great it is to be able to get your work out to the world without barriers.
Well, the thing about everyone being able to post everything all the time is that everyone is able to post everything all the time. Even in the days when gatekeepers dictated only a handful of artists would receive any level of publicity at a given moment, it was near impossible to really break out amongst a sea of competition. We now live in a world with far fewer gatekeepers, but instead of competing with a handful of other artists to make our names, we are now competing with literally millions of other artists every second of every day.
Each day, 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram. Let me say that again. 95 million photos and videos are posted to Instagram every single day. And that’s just one platform. How on earth do you expect to make a dent in people’s memory when each of us is literally deluged with photos 24 hours a day? You can create the greatest photograph ever shot, but the odds of it staking any real place in society’s collective memory is extremely low. That photograph is competing against 95 million other posts that day. Then another 95 the day after that. Then again the day after that.
The gatekeeper system did prevent many deserving voices from gaining prominence in the art world. But the social media content system might be even more harmful, as it can bury even the best art through sheer numerical disadvantage.
Social Media Can Inspire You to Create
I’ve spoken about it before, but Flickr was key to my early photography career. The photo-sharing platform was where I went when I was just learning photography. And the community and audience I found there was key to my early growth.
I’d create work and get feedback. My friends who were on the platform would share work that would then inspire me to try different things. Having a set outlet for your creative productivity can provide a certain amount of motivation to keep creating. But, of course, there’s a flip side.
Social Media Can Force You to Create
I once heard a quote. I think it was by Beethoven, but I could be entirely wrong about that. The essential logic was that every artist only has a certain amount of truly great work in them. In other words, we can all reach greatness, but to expect to do it every day for the rest of time is simply not going to happen. Instead, an artist should focus on creating a smaller amount of great work rather than just more work for the sake of work.
Social media algorithms reward people who post frequently. Their business model is to keep viewers on their platforms. In order to do that, they need content. They don’t care if it’s good or not. They just need a lot of it so people constantly have something new to look at.
Because social media follower count has somehow become equated with actual value in our current society, photographers ultimately feel the pressure to play to the social media algorithms. They post image after image because they are told that to post regularly is a necessary part of business. But, going back to our Beethoven example, it is simply not possible to post “great” work multiple times a day, every day, without greatly diminishing the quality of the entire body of work. Sure, you’ll have some great ones in there. But, if your goal is to cultivate a body of work that shows you in the best light, then feeling forced to post mediocre work just to meet the “consistency” requirement is actually working against your larger goal.
Sometimes less truly is more. Art almost always falls into that category. And the content needs of social media run opposite to the concept of careful curation.
Art Has Become Content
I hate the word “content.” More and more each day. When I set off to create a career as an artist, it was to create memorable imagery that would stay with the viewer. It could be a film that people are still talking about 30 years from now. A photograph people would want to hang on their wall to look at every day. A commercial that defined a client’s brand identity for viewers everywhere. I may not always reach such lofty goals. In fact, we rarely do. But what I absolutely did not get into this line of work for was to create meaningless content meant to be scrolled past at a million miles a minute and instantly forgotten on social media.
Again, as stated at the top of this article, I get it. The world is different now than when I started. It has moved on and we have to move on with it. Being able to adjust to the current market is as important an attribute as establishing oneself in the first place. But at no point will I ever consider the art I create to be “content.”
Content is a commodity. It’s a run-of-the-mill necessity that’s main value is that it does a necessary job and costs the least amount to the consumer as possible. It’s not special. You buy it because you have to have it. Toothpaste, toilet paper, soap. You need these things to survive. But the market value is low because there are a million and one other vendors selling exactly the same thing with minimal differentiation between their product and yours. At that point, the consumer simply is trying to acquire the needed commodity for as little money as humanly possible. So, for the producer, the game becomes “how can I produce the most of this commodity at the lowest costs so that I can make a lot of it to sell in bulk?” Because consumers aren’t willing to pay more for a product with very little unique value, the producer has to sell a lot of the product to make up for the low price of each individual commodity.
Conversely, if you are marketing a more unique product, something that is produced in far more limited quantities but is a higher quality, then you are able to charge more for your product than those selling simple commodities. You can take the time to make each product unique, highly crafted, and detailed. Think, for example, of a luxury car built entirely by hand. You are not just selling something that people will buy because they have to, like a pair of socks. You are creating an entire experience that is something that no other vendor will be able to replicate.
That’s what art is all about. It’s about creating one-of-a-kind products that are valuable beyond their practical necessity. It's not like your clients are incapable of purchasing a small camera, setting it to auto, and taking a picture of their product. If that’s all it took to make a great photograph, there would be no need for photographers at all. What photographers bring to the table is their own unique artistic vision. An artist is creating a one of a kind asset that can only be made by him or her. An artist is not creating a commodity. An artist is not there simply to create meaningless content.
Yet, the growth of social media and the foregrounding of quantity over quality has reduced the value of art in the eyes of many to that of a sheer commodity. It’s just something that has to happen to stay relevant and thus clients look to acquire as much of it as they can for as little money as possible. I can hardly blame them. That’s capitalism. But the end result is that the value of art has been driven down. This affects not only the artist’s ability to create his or her aesthetic vision. But it also has literally driven down photographer’s rates, usage fees, and ability to make a living. More photographers can get some work. But fewer photographers can get the kind of work necessary to make a living. It’s a Catch 22.
I like to use a lot of fanciful language when discussing our profession. But this is simple brass tax. Social media has created an expectation among clients that artists will hand over more and more product for less and less money. Art is no longer seen by many as a premium unique good. Rather, for some, it is simply a commodity to be burned through the way a doctor goes through cotton swabs.
Art is not content. But we live in a world where we’ve allowed social media to define it as such in the minds of viewers (and buyers) around the world.
Whether or not social media is a net positive or a negative for the photography industry is something of a useless question. The world has moved in a certain direction and we need to move with it. But as we continue to voluntarily let social media companies dictate the method through which we are able to reach our audiences, I feel like it’s important that we take a moment to think about what we are sacrificing in the exchange.
It is easier than ever for me to reach out directly to a particular client. However, it is also easier for all 7.96 billion people on the globe to do the same thing. Social media has driven up demand for photographic products for customers in every sector. But it has also driven down the value of the assets we produce and led to a commodification of our services. Social media has brought many people together. But has also driven home deeper divisions in the public square.
Ultimately, I don’t know whether social media is a good thing or a bad thing. It’s simply a fact to be dealt with. And like the man choosing to think of life as something happening for him instead of to him, our goal is to make the most of it. But what do you think? Has social media ultimately been a positive influence on the industry we love? Or has it merely been fools good and led to the destruction of what we had once built? How do you expect the growing importance of social media to affect our industry going forward?
In my world the shift to social media has had a huge impact. A lot of money was shifted from what I worked on to the social media teams, in house agency folk or an influencer. Not a photographer.
Social media manager seems to be the most popular job on the job boards.
Interesting article and a topic I love discussing. While I agree with most of what was written, I do disagree with the "Harder to Get Your Work Seen" part. Maybe if you consider "getting your work seen" to be the top 1% of social media influencers that are favored and boosted by the algorithm. Sure, that might be the dream for some and the digital equivalent of being exhibited at that famous museum. But even if you're low profile, sharing your work to only a few thousand followers and getting a couple hundred likes and other interactions, that's still more than in the Gatekeeper days when you'd only ever show your photos to a handful of family members and close friends. And in terms of art and quantity vs quality, I think there's also a factor of how WE use social media. And I do mean as the user, not the artist or creator. I consciously train the algorithm to show me what I like, and still find beautiful photos and other inspiration on Instagram that makes me stop and admire them for a while. And every now and again I discover someone new and incredible I'd have never known in the gatekeeper days. Granted, that part of IG has gotten considerably worse in the past few years, drowned in ads, reels and a lot of AI art more recently. But it's still there for now, even if the artists indeed are forced into quantity over quality by the algorithm.
Look, let's be real here. I disagree with competition is good, you can't kid me into thinking that as a photographer, I want competition. In the older days, it was a He__ of a lot easier to market yourself! You mainly worked on two things, Reputation, and if you could get the best, biggest, and most placement Ads in the Yellow-Pages. Now you have to have so many places, so many additional costs, and constant on-line maintenance, it robs you of TIME! and that's MONEY! Most photographers are creative people, and don't want and don't like the marketing grind of Day-to-Day business operations.
Let's take Square-Space for instance, They and many people in the current Professional Photography world tell us that it's easy to get your photos and images seen by having a website and that SS is a great way to start. What they don't tell you is that it takes a He_L of a lot of work, additional management, and additional cost to promote and Market your SS website. And Now there are thousands of other SS photographers doing the same thing. I haven't even begun to cover all the different costs involved, it just goes on and on. I'm not bashing SS here just using them as an example.
Guess what, my Wife does Social-Media Marketing for a living. So I have a very good idea of what is involved in getting businesses on their feet in the SMMWorld.
So, to answer the question, Has Social Media been a Negative or Positive, it's my opinion that it's Negative. Could we live without it if it wasn't here? Yes, has it improved our business lives as photographers, Yes, But, not without a very healthy cost of Money and Time. Does it motivate us to create? It discourages me. Today, Social-Media is a Necessary evil, you have to have it and you have to market it!
Once websites became easier than direct marketing to clients we needed websites. Until Square Space etc. photographers needed "web guys" to work on the websites.The DIY websites are just putting the design, maintenance, promotion in the hands of the photographer for better or worse.
What do you mean by "additional cost to promote and Market your SS website"?
SEO, Email Campaigns, Youtube Channels, Blog posting, Software to scrape for market segments, and more!
I had to do similar stuff before, curating a mail list with Agency Access, multiple portfolios to send out, reps, trying to cook up memorable direct mail pieces. Cold calling, lunches that go nowhere...
I think I would rather do that online. lol
Back then I wasn't looking for likes I was looking for jobs, and I had no need to reach the entire world, I needed to reach qualified buyers.
Has Social Media Been a Positive or Negative for the World
Ive removed the two words at the end so i can simply say, Negative.
Social media has done wonders for my photography. Please note that I am talking about what it has done for my photography itself, and not anything about earning money from my photography.
Using Instagram and Facebook as a research tool has been immensely effective. As a wildlife photographer, before Instagram and FB I would often spend long periods of time and a lot of travel expenses searching for wild animals to photograph, only to strike out. Now, because of social media, I can find thousands of other wildlife photographers and see what they are shooting, and I can usually see just where they are shooting it. Then if the opportunities they have seem like they are worth the time and expense, I can plan a trip to that spot myself and know that there will be wild animals there, and that it won't be just another wasted trip.
I have also used Instagram and other sites to find people who are just as passionate about wild animals as I am. I have made many friendships with other wildlife photographers and conservationists by first finding and contacting them on Instagram. Then these friendships evolve into real-life friendships when I travel to their area and shoot with them, or when we meet somewhere in between to do a photo trip together where we share the cost of lodging and spend the day shooting together.
If you are looking at social media solely as a way to increase your income, then you are missing the point. Life isn't supposed to be about earning money - it's supposed to be about doing what you love and sharing it with others. The real value of social media is having gobs and gobs of information at your fingertips, and to initiate friendships that become long-lasting real life friendships.
For those who see social media as a negative, I wonder how you are using it. What are you trying to accomplish with your interaction on sites such as Instagram and Facebook?
Ideally it should and could be that way but that's not how it works. I personally do not do any form of promotion on social media, however, if you accept the overload of big and smaller brands advertising on social media, you should also accept that those small and very small businesses do the same. Facebook, Instagram are major commercial sites. Calling them social media is not very accurate, they are more advertising machines that collect a tremendous amount of personal data on you and link your friends with you in very unfriendly manners. And when you research you actually provide info to these companies. Yes, I do too, but if any small business can profit from these platform, I support them. The simple fact they constantly change algorithms is not to help us, it's more about putting limits on free opportunities for small businesses that don't have the budget for advertising to start with.
Thanks for your reply.
Yes, I am well aware of how greed is the driving force behind the creators, owners, stockholders, and decision-makers of Meta. I also know that they see everywhere I go with my phone, and every website that I visit. They know where I shop and where I eat. They know who I get together with and who I call and who I text and who I message and who I email.
But despite all that, I still find Instagram to be incredibly effective as a research tool, especially for finding wildlife photography opportunities and for finding others who also love to photograph the same species that I do. There is literally no other way to access all of the information that I find on Instagram. They have given me a tool that there is nothing comparable to.
If I want to learn about photographing wildlife in the Sax-Zim Bog in northern Minnesota, I just get on Instagram and do a search for the hashtags like #saxzimbog #saxzimowl #saxzimowls ... and within a minute I have dozens of photos of wild birds and mammals that have been taken at the Sax-Zim Bog. I then go to the profile of the people who have taken these photos, and I can write them a message asking them to tell me all about their experience at the Bog. I include my phone number in the message.
About 30% of the people will call me on the phone to talk about the Bog and what the wildlife photography opportunities are like there. About another 40% will message me back, with answers to any specific questions that I asked. And about another 30% of the people I sent messages out to will never respond.
So if I send out 20 messages, I am getting roughly 6 wildlife photographers calling me to tell me about the Bog, and another 8 wildlife photographers sending me a detailed message about the Bog. Other than Instagram of Facebook, where on earth could I ever get so much very specific first-hand information about one small, obscure place in the middle of nowhere? And where could I get all of that information while expending no more than two hours worth of time and effort?
It's more than what you visit on the web or your connections. My kids are adults now but for some reason we just got the season Lego catalog in the mail this week. We talked about it briefly at dinner time and that was that. Later I go on my computer and without ever typing the word Lego for years, an add for a Lego roller coaster just shows up.
Yes, of course. Because, like I said, they know basically everything about you.
Perhaps one of your kids has a kid, and that kid likes Lego. Google would know that you have a grandchild that likes Lego, and direct ads to you accordingly. That is just "normal" nowadays, for them to know everything about you - what you get in the mail, all of your social and family connections, what you said on the phone, what you said when you were by yourself in the car driving, etc.
I really don't see what any of that has to do with using social media to do research about things. I'm pretty much impervious to advertisements so ads and mail being sent my way doesn't bother or distract me.
Benoit, Very well said and good points. Not everyone is a wildlife photographer. I gave up landscape, because everyone's been there so you don't have many options to create something original, especially since Instagram started posting GPS numbers. I'm an Artist, not a photographer, So I have switched my creativity to still life, The one good thing that Covid did, Forced me into my own home studio.
Giving GPS really shows how the people at Instagram could careless about photography and nature in general. I stopped Instagram 10 years ago, went back a couple times and found it worst. Sounds like Instagram is all about taking people for stupid just to get them addicted.
"World of Photography" was the question so I would say:
- Negative for professional photographers
- Positive for amature photographers
- Very Positive for non-photographers that like good photos
The world moves on; I remember when desktop publishing put thousands of typesetters out of work. And enabled people with basic computer skills to learn the art. Also kept magazines etc viable for a few more decades.
So the answer depends literally on who you ask - or at least what they "do" with photography.