A few social media platforms, especially those owned by Mark Zuckerberg, monopolize the sharing of images online. Those platforms do have controversies, and Apple’s changes to how Facebook handles data is starting to shake up that dominance. But will it be a good thing for photography? Furthermore, should we consider doing something else with our images instead of posting to social media?
There are two sides to the arguments about Facebook. It attracts the same suspicions and criticisms aimed at most major entities such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and the other dominant players in any market sector, including photography. The main arguments fired these powerful entities is that they track and manipulate us, and, consequently, have enormous control over our lives. Also, some of them pay few taxes to support our nations’ societies. Furthermore, they are seen as undemocratic; we cannot choose an alternative. They are on the dark side!
However, they are successful because they deliver what we, the consumer, ask for. Plus, they are businesses, and are under no obligation to be democratic, and most big businesses exist to make money in any legal ways possible.
The Marketing Forces Awaken
From a commercial point of view, Facebook is an effective way for me to market my work. As an example, I spent the equivalent of $250 on a printed advert in a local newspaper, and it generated no clients. However, I know that $30 spent on a Facebook promotion will bring me at least three new customers. This is the reason why, sadly, many local papers are closing. They cannot compete with the effectiveness of online advertising.
Until now, I could target exactly the people I want to learn about my services using Facebook’s marketing tools. I would tailor advertising for my wedding customers, who are mostly different from those who want their holiday rentals photographed. Then, they are different again from those wanting me to teach them to use their camera. Another part of my work is giving IT support and website building for small businesses. So, again, those adverts are targeted in another way.
The Advert Menace
From a user’s perspective, it may seem a bit creepy when you mention on a Facebook post that you are looking for a new lens and then see adverts for camera retailers. But, on the other hand, if you buy a photography magazine, you will see adverts for cameras and not for cars, guitars, or sports bras. Don’t we want to see promoted content that interests us?
When you see a paid promotion for a photography blog on Facebook or Google, you are tempted to read it. This is in the hope that you will learn something new about a topic you find interesting. You might discover new information or read a different opinion from your own that challenge your beliefs. If promoted posts were not targeted, instead you might see adverts for anything from reviews of painkillers to comparisons of incontinence products, which, hopefully, you do not need.
The Apple Empire Strikes Back
Apple now requires mobile apps to seek users’ permission for their tracking activity. This restricts the amount of data Facebook and others get from those apps. If users do not opt into sharing their data, Facebook is no longer able to build profiles of its users as efficiently as it previously could. It’s those profiles that allow me and other businesses great and small to target our ads at the right people. So, that change has a negative impact on the effectiveness of my marketing. Unless iPhone and iPad users decide to opt in to sharing their data, my advertising revenue will be spent on scattered ads that don’t reach the people who would be interested in them.
Is This Change Positive? Or is it a Rogue One?
From the perspective of a small business, this change imposed by Apple is a bad thing. However, there is another, wider perspective to consider.
There is a concern that we are increasingly living in a bubble where we are only exposed to beliefs, opinions, and interests that match our own. Have a look at your Facebook friends list. I would wager that most of your online friends have a lot in common with you. What proportion of them are photographers? How many of your friends hold similar political or religious views? See what I mean?
Perhaps, therefore, Apple’s move is a good one for our societies as it will broaden our exposure to a wider group of people: Republicans will start to see posts promoted by Democrats and vice versa; socialists. liberals and conservatives will understand each other's views better; Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and Buddhists will see each other’s blogs; and, most controversially, full frame shooters might discover the benefits of shooting with Micro Four Thirds.
Will This Change Promote a Darker Side?
Of course, that argument in turn brings another potential problem. Just like the super-rich politicians getting all the exposure on social media, those who appear in paid promotions in your timeline will be those who can afford to be there. That brilliant young photographer, living on a shoestring budget in Poland, won’t get their breakthrough because they cannot afford to promote themselves. The same music factories will still churn out the drivel that dominates that industry, while the genius songwriter playing his guitar in Scranton PA won’t get a look in. Meanwhile, super-rich manufacturers will continue dominating the market because of their aggressive marketing. Thus, photography and the other arts are at risk of becoming ever more elitist.
Exiting Facebook (Facebooxit) is easier said than done. One of the biggest issues we face if we are trying to leave the Facebook-dominated online world is that no other platform reaches a wide, non-photographic audience in quite the same way. Sadly, most places for hosting images online, apart from the big names in social media, are insular. They serve the photographic community by sharing images only with other photographers. Take, for example, Flickr and 500px. Both those sites are aimed at photographers for photographers. Consequently, the wider public probably won’t see the images posted there, unless they are then shared on Facebook. Even then, you may have noticed that posting links to external sites on Facebook reach fewer readers than when you post directly to it; you have to pay for it to be seen by more people.
A New Hope
But, putting commercial interests aside, is reaching a broad audience and getting lots of likes really that important?
There is evidence that social media is bad for our mental health. Seeing the sanitized versions of other people’s happy lives can lead to feelings of inadequacy. The truth is, they too are hiding their pain and woes. Similarly, you can be sure that for every great picture you see posted on Instagram, the photographer will have plenty more that didn’t make the cut.
Maybe we should ask ourselves whether hundreds of followers, likes, or those positive but often bland and meaningless comments mean anything? Images posted on social media and the comments they attract are fleeting and quickly forgotten. Photographs used to be something special. Hard work and learning raised the standard, and a great photograph was celebrated. Now, it is dismissed with the click of an emoji.
If we want to break free of the social media rat race, how should we go about it?
Join the Rebels
Let's rebel against what we believe to be true about photography.
Firstly, we should consider the final product far less important than the process of creating the photograph. For me, there is little I find more enjoyable than heading outside with my camera and photographing my favorite subjects. I get into the outdoors, I meet real people, I exercise, and I concentrate on creating a new image. Those experiences are worth far more than getting little red hearts on Instagram.
Secondly, we should take a different approach to sharing our images. Instead of posting them on Facebook and hoping for recognition, get them printed and hire a community hall for a morning. Put on an exhibition of your work. Tie up with a charity or organization that you believe in and allow them to make it into a fund-raising event.
Alternatively, self-publish a book of your work, print on demand is becoming affordable, and send them as presents to your family and friends.
Those kinds of actions will have a far greater, positive impact on people’s lives, including your own, than once again posting the photo to be lots amongst the 240 billion others on Facebook.
Please forgive the Star Wars Puns. I typed this on May 4th, and could not resist.