The Dangers of Digital Sharecropping for Photographers

The Dangers of Digital Sharecropping for Photographers

There's a seldom discussed threat to any business owner or self-employed person. That threat can drastically affect photographers if they aren't aware of it, and it has been seen many times over already.

Running any kind of business at the moment is tough — very tough. Many of us have seen our income significantly reduced or our revenue streams depleting (hopefully temporarily), forcing us to pivot to stay afloat. These are not normal times, however, and it was difficult to have been properly prepared for them. That said, there are ordinary risks that we all must prepare for in photography, whether you're an enthusiast who enjoys building a following, somebody using it as a means of a supplementary income, or you're a full-time photographer using the craft to live. One of those ordinary risks I believe is discussed far less than others and many are not even aware the problem exists. This article will walk you through what it is and how to secure yourself from pitfalls out of your control.

What Is Sharecropping?

Sharecropping has a difficult and dark past that is not relevant to this article. While I'm sensitive to that and have read up on the history of sharecropping, I don't want this article and any consequent discussion to get derailed by it. This is even more so given the current climate surrounding race. My definition will omit applications of sharecropping with specific ties to slavery (indeed, it is in many ways intrinsically linked to it), as it isn't relevant to digital sharecropping, and has no other reason or agenda.

Sharecropping in its simplest form is this: somebody who owns land allows somebody else to grow crops on their land in exchange for a share of the yield produced. This is a way for people who cannot afford to buy land to produce crops, as well as for landowners who aren't farming to get some extra income or crops without having to farm it themselves. While the benefits of this symbiotic relationship are obvious, the benefits lean heavily towards the landowner who can do anything from increase their share through to suddenly canceling the agreement.

What Is Digital Sharecropping?

In modern society, a huge portion of the planet's population engages in digital sharecropping to some degree or another. In most instances, it's not at the slightest risk to the user. Digital sharecropping is where a person creates content on someone else's digital platform. For example, I am digitally sharecropping right now, as Lee and Patrick own Fstoppers, and I produce content on their platform. But the concept is far more pervasive than that. Every Twitter user, every Facebook page, every YouTuber, every podcaster on Audible or iTunes — the list is endless. Almost every one of us is digitally sharecropping these days, and that's fine. It's better than fine — it's valuable. So, what's the danger?

What Is the Risk?

Anyone old enough to remember Myspace (when it was relevant) will know this: it was everything. Bands large and small flocked to the platform to build followings, some doing so with tremendous success. Likewise, users wanted as many friends as possible to show their great taste in music and to be seen. People — but bands in particular, which makes this so pertinent — threw everything they had at Myspace, and when it fell from grace, some were out in the cold.

It's not an uncommon story, with websites like Digg, Bebo, and Gawker going much the same way. Platforms rise and platforms fall like mini empires, leaving those who invested in them (and only them) bitter and jilted. Photography platforms are far from exempt. There was a time where Flickr was the be-all and end-all for a huge portion of photographers. Then, as it got infected with little community-made badges and garish trends, people started to jump ship for the likes of 500px. We have seen a similar trajectory for Instagram, which was more important than a portfolio for many photographers. There was a time where even I, with a meager following, was getting more work through Instagram than any other channel. Now, Instagram is slipping further and further from relevancy.

So, what's the risk? Well, the land on which we grow our crops can be taken away from us at any time, so if we have too many eggs in that proverbial basket, we can suffer. The best modern example I have seen is Facebook Pages. Their reach, interaction rates, and clickthroughs were very attractive, and ads were powerful. Then, one day, as if someone had turned off the divine tap, engagement fell off a cliff. People with six-figure followings and who were used to hundreds of comments and thousands of likes per post were getting less than 10% of what they previously got, with no change on their end. We saw a similar story with Instagram. Many who were established Instagram "influencers" were suddenly almost unseen under the new algorithms.

Like revenue streams (and they often are revenue streams in some capacity), relying on one too heavily can be a risk. You must ask yourself what you would do if this revenue stream went away. Similarly, what would you do if this platform went away? Being omnipresent across multiple platforms isn't just good sense for exposure, it safeguards you from being in a difficult situation should something change, which it will.

Time and time again video content creators have suffered at the hands of YouTube when ad revenue is reduced or turned off, as well as content taken down.

What Can You Do?

This is by no means a call to abandon other people's platforms for content creation; their value is significant and fundamental to the way many of us work. Instead, what this article aims to warn against is the reliance on one or two platforms. Should the landowner choose to change or close his fields, you may be left short on crops. So, spreading your content across multiple platforms is certainly one way to safeguard against the pitfalls of digital sharecropping, but it isn't the only way.

Another option is to move as much of your content as you can onto your own "field." That is, writing up behind-the-scenes or blog posts on your own website or blog, hosting your own podcast on your own website, and selling your own products through it too, rather than someone else's store. This puts your content under your control. It is of course harder to do and harder to build an audience, and I would suggest it's done alongside other platforms, but the safety it provides can be meaningful. If you're selling LUTs through a LUT-selling platform and making good money, then suddenly, they shutter their doors, recapturing your previous clients will be next to impossible. Whereas if you sold your LUTs on both and made your website's store to buy directly both attractive and well-publicized, the hit would be far less significant.

Have you ever been affected by digital sharecropping? Has your engagement — or worse, your revenue — ever taken a sharp decline due to community disinterest or company changes? Share your experiences in the comment section below.

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Mike Ditz's picture

Good timing...

Kirk Darling's picture

"My definition will omit applications of sharecropping with specific ties to slavery (indeed, it is in many ways intrinsically linked to it), as it isn't relevant to digital sharecropping, and has no other reason or agenda."

Since "sharecropping" already has a perfectly good meaning with a denotation and connotations that everyone already understands, and you want to distance yourself from all those connotations, then you should use another word.

"Digital sharecropping is where a person creates content on someone else's digital platform."

Nope, that's not it, because if the person creating content on someone else's digital platform is not obligated to pay a significant percentage of his earnings to the owner of that platform, it's too far from the known meaning of "sharecropping" to be of any use as terminology. You might as well call it "digital squatting."

Robert K Baggs's picture

Digital sharecropping isn't a term I coined. As for "digital squatting", you ARE paying a percentage of your earnings on these platforms. The ads on YouTube that generate revenue for the content creator is only a percentage of the total revenue that advert generates; that's how these platforms make money. You're not getting a free ride at all, they're just taking their share before you even see yours.

Tom Reichner's picture

I like Robert's use of the word "sharecropping", and I think that there are parallels between the digital sharecropping that he describes and the original use of the term. Of course there are some differences, but that certainly doesn't mean that using the term is inviable.

I like it when word usage is expanded and when words are used in new ways.

Good job, Robert!

Edgard Rodriguez's picture

I think the use of Sharecropping is more appropriate for the idea that Robert is putting forward.

"Squatting" is more related to "unlawfully occupy" (according to the definition in dictionaries), therefore it does not apply to Robert's idea.

Good article Robert!

Kirk Darling's picture

If you're not required to pay rent out of profits and kept in debt to the owner of the estate, you're not "sharecropping." That the basic meaning of the word. It means nothing without that understanding. It's just a grunt, not a meaningful word without that understanding. Someone who didn't really understand what sharecropping is (which actually has nothing to do with slavery) just grabbed a word and made up his own definiton.

Pete Whittaker's picture

"This puts your content under your control." Sort of... You're then dependent on Google (principally) to help people find your content and unless you host your own website, you're still dependent on another company to host your content. Only now you're paying to have your content hosted.

Google isn't about to go under but just like Facebook, they could change their algorithm, compromising your SEO tactics and/or they could change the way paid search results work, resulting in your website being further down or less prominently displayed on the results page.

We could really use some more Fstoppers articles on active marketing and how to connect with clients/potential clients. The point, that you should have your own website as well as having a presence on other sites is well taken but also seems to be covered frequently.

Kirk Darling's picture

In other words, how to go out and find them instead of leaving breadcrumbs in different places for them to find you.

Dan Marchant's picture

I removed all the unnecessary words....

"Use your social media/photo sharing accounts to drive traffic to your own website, so if the social media platform declines/closes (or starts charging a fortune) your fans already know where to find you".

derek j's picture

This was a well written and pertinent article, but I think you could have made all these points using a different term.

Robert K Baggs's picture

It's a fairly established term so I leaned on that for clarity, but I certainly accept it might not be possible to separate it from the term it originates. If I write any more on the subject I'll likely go a different direction with the label for it.

derek j's picture

Thank you. perhaps the problem is with the wide usage of the term. I don't assume any malice on your part.