Social media is an incredible tool for propagating ideas, allowing the potential for mass outreach to anyone with an Internet connection and something to say.
However, it is only really across the last decade or so that this status quo has been balanced, and within that span, the “town square” for photography content has shifted constantly. Flickr, Facebook Groups, Twitter, Reddit, 500px, Instagram, and various other forums and sites that have popped up, claimed to be the next big thing, then vanished without a trace.
Communities have usually migrated towards whoever is offering the most eyes on posts with low barriers to entry, and potential to gather new members. Some remain in the abandoned ruins of groups that have long since moved on, while others try and co-opt sites that aren’t really intended for sharing high-quality imagery (media) and are more concentrated on networking and communication (social).
A Shifting Social Media Landscape
The current landscape of social media seems to be undergoing some pretty significant changes, away from still images (which occupy a tiny fraction of attention as you scroll past) towards video content (spend longer with each morsel of content, including branded deliveries), which means still photography has been cut loose to an extent.
Combine these strategic and deliberate medium-based changes with other decisions, like fundamentally altering the ways communities behave on Reddit, or profile “hierarchies” on Twitter, and the result is a bit of a mess. It is not easy to find firm and confident footing on a path towards a photography-centric space, the digital Promised Land that ticks all boxes of image quality and audience quality.
It’s easy to be blinded by the potential a digital space seems to offer; global reach, unlimited customer base, acclaim, and recognition. But achieving these relies on standing out from the noise because you’re effectively competing for attention against every single other person who is trying to do the same thing as you, and everyone else who is trying to do something different than you.
No one is going to “solve” the algorithm any more than they will solve a roulette wheel. These social media platforms are not “your platform”, they belong to someone else. If tomorrow a company decides to remove all instances of the letter “A,” they will be entirely able to do so. They choose what they want their platform to be a reflection of.
If you have the option to buy an advertising spot and actively market your photographs that way, then people will certainly see the advert – it won’t be “organic reach” or free-range audience, or whatever else people call posting and hoping, but at the same time how many of these people who see the work will actually convert into an audience member, let alone a paying customer?
The Challenge of Getting Seen
When was the last time you bought a print or a book from a photographer you’d never heard of just because you saw their sponsored post on social media? If you haven’t, then why would you expect someone else to purchase your product when you promote it in a way that you haven’t personally responded to?
Some creators, instead of paying to have their work shown to people in the form of an advert, will “buy followers” which inflate the number shown on their profile, as well as view and like counts, sometimes even comments. But you can’t really pay someone to be your customer, for that you need advertising or an equivalent form of marketing. This undermines the accuracy of the assessment of actual popularity, which means potential clients or brands looking for a legitimate audience to harness are dissuaded from using follower counts and other numbers games for a real sense of legitimacy.
Despite all of the shortcomings, that underlying sense of potential remains for the digital space: if I’m not there, where will I be? If I don’t share my message where everyone else seems to be shouting, how will I get heard (even if no one is hearing what anyone else is saying anyway)?
What are the non-digital spaces that don’t cost money to access? What is the equivalent of a work re-sharing hub, boosting their own audience using that very audiences content? Who are the gatekeepers, and what are they gatekeeping if not just an audience you may not have reached yet?
Outside of the digital-but-not-social media options, like blogging or YouTube (which are increasingly populated by social-media-like tools), how does your physical real day-to-day existence differ from the way you behave on social media? How often do you speak to someone you’ve never met or seen before, make a new connection? How often do you involve yourself with your local community, in whatever form that may be? Would these interactions still be focused on photography? Are you showing them your photographs within moments of getting their attention?
Without the boundaries of a digital frame restricting you to one method of interaction, what new potential opens up to you? Without those digital tools would you even call yourself a photographer as an initial introductory label?
With these as a starting point, the real question becomes obvious. Is your goal only to have your work seen? Remembered? Purchased? Is social media really the best path to achieving any of these?
What’s the last image you’ve only seen on social media that you really remember?
What’s the last one you bought?
About the author: Simon King is a London-based photographer and photojournalist, currently working on a number of long-term documentary and street photography projects. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can follow his work through his documentary collective, The New Exit Photography Group, and on Instagram.
Image credits: Photographs by Simon King