Instagram is transitioning from being a photo based community to being a global marketing platform. They always shifted their focus in a way or another: it started with snapshots taken with the phone and it then embraced photos taken with other cameras: I remember the drama –– purists wanted Instagram to be used only for smartphone snapshots, keeping dSLR photos away. With time this became a trivial matter, because most phones gained decent cameras and sophisticated editing apps –– the difference between “professional” and “casual” photos became thin, especially when seen on a small phone screen, so the debate solved itself.
Instagram CEO said they are not a “photo sharing company anymore”, as video became much more important for their business –– and indeed, they shifted focus from photography to video, from video to temporary content in stories, from stories to reels and so on. Once Facebook put their hands on Instagram, they did all they could to copy what was popular and they could not buy. It started with Snapchat temporary content and it went on with TikTok short videos, with a mediocre attempt at taking on YouTube (IGTV) thrown in the middle.
Their unique interest became crafting a platform able of creating a huge amount of traffic, selling that data and using it for their very profitable ads business. Instagram users became nothing but a cheap source of income for Facebook, drugged into using a badly managed platform that wasted its potential. The algorithms that run Instagram don’t care about content’s quality, nor the people behind it, nor about what is fair or unfair. They care about creating traffic, gathering data, testing marketing psychology, building ads revenue.
So, if Instagram became such a pointless platform, what about the other communities for photographers? This is the topic of this post.
If we define them as places where to share photos and receive meaningful feedback by a large number of visitors, then I believe there are no useful online communities for photographers anymore. What exists is nothing but a memory of what it was and soon won’t be anymore.
The main reason behind the demise of online photography communities is the new popularity of photography itself. This popularity comes from smartphones and from photography communities themselves, especially Instagram.
There was a time when photography was a hobby that required some investment and dedication. Not everyone had a camera, not everyone had editing skills, not everyone wished to share photos outside their family or friends’ circle. Then smartphones happened. Everyone suddenly had a decent camera in their pockets, free apps that made editing trivial, and the chance of sharing photos in a very convenient way. In a couple of years this fact brought the number of shared photos into the billions territory.
It’s important to notice that the quality of these photos also kept growing, because of three factors: imitation, low entrance barriers, technology.
Imitation is a form of learning we can debate upon, but it is proved it can produce results. How valid and solid that acquired knowledge is –– that’s another story. But it’s a reality that millions of users started copying the nice photos they saw online. People that would have never thought of posing decided to try being a model. The awkwardness of shooting portraits and lifestyle was washed away. Others were doing it and they were successful –– sometimes they even used a smartphone, so why not to try? And thanks to imitation the level of quality kept growing. This created a huge flow of photos looking all very similar, yes –– but they were still good photos.
The other factor is a low financial barrier for entering the photography hobby and profession. A decent camera system can be bought for few and even 10 years old cameras can shoot something that is definitely usable for pleasure and work. The same goes for lenses and for software. All the photographer needs can be bought for few. Everyone can go on eBay and find something cheap and used that can produce decent and even high image quality. And when they don’t want to venture into this learning curve, there is the next factor coming into play: technology.
Smartphones include software that takes care of lots of choices for the photographer, solving many of the technical problems connected to photography. It really became possible to do decent photography by pushing only a button. There are limits to this approach, but these limits become a problem only in a small number of situations. The other side of technology is the software. Extremely cheap and easy to use apps let everyone apply a film simulation, do some minor or major tweaks to the photo, remove unwanted objects, all on a smartphone or tablet screen, using dedicated and extremely simplified interfaces that require no learning curve.
These three factors together are what caused the incredible growth of good photography that flooded Instagram and other places. This fact is in my opinion strictly connected to the demise of online photography communities as we knew them.
Their existence depends on their chance of fullfilling some needs: photographers want to build a following and receive feedback –– visitors want to find new inspiring imagery.
Reaching these goals became extremely difficult because the amount of people taking part is simply too high. Millions of photos are being shared every day. There is just too much going on all the time. In the end it’s like throwing a stone into the ocean and expecting people to spot it from the shoreline.
I am talking of a bigger picture: of course inside Flickr, 500px and Instagram you can still find sub-communities of people communicating in a meaningful way. But those are little islands. The majority is passively scrolling through thousands of photos chosen by an algorithm, mostly the same ones being chosen over and over again.
My final point could be summarized like this: online photography communities as we knew them can’t exist anymore because there are too many members, too many photos being shared, with a quality that became too high for allowing differentiation and giving value to what we see.
I think that’s why we will not see “a new Instagram” as many are wishing for. Such a community is not possible anymore: if it will become popular enough to make sense, it will also be saturated by content and same issues will appear.
Another interesting fact is that communities far less popular than Instagram like 500px and Flickr are mostly populated by photographers talking to other photographers. That’s a big problem if you want to build a following. Let’s be honest: photographers rarely want to comment and watch the work of others, apart from the masters. Instagram for a while used to work fine because it had a relatively small number of photographers talking to a lot of non-photographers, and that created an ideal situation for sharing photos (photographers’ goal) and for finding beautiful and inspiring imagery (visitors’ goal).
The number of photographers competing for attention is just too high. This also affects YouTube photographers: most of them are not really working as photographers and when they do, their commissioned production is very limited in quantity. Their actual job is to be on YouTube and talk about photography and photo gear (attracting sponsors and ads renevue), not to sell photos. That’s because building a photography online presence among millions of other good ones is not easy, if you want to earn money and amass a big number of followers. Being a photographer among thousands of YouTube photographers is proportionally easier. The base issue is the same: a highly competitive reality where it became extremely hard being noticed.
Photographers naturally wish to share their passion and production with others – as I wrote before, mostly with non-photographers. A photographer looks at a photo in a different way, thinking of tech aspects, often trying to guess parameters, with a critical mind. At the same time, the photographer wishes people to watch only the photo, forgetting tech aspects. This conflict is extremely interesting, and could become a different post.
If online photography communities as we know them are destined to oblivion, what kind of hope do we have for sharing our photos?
I believe in looking for opportunities in crisis. Whenever things turn bad, the fact that they are changing is often enough to grant alternatives, unexpected new paths, even an improvement. The fact that communities meant as “sharing lots of photos for easily getting feedback” aren’t working anymore could still bring something good.
Photography is a lifestyle – it is a way for interacting with reality as we perceive it. It’s a way for meeting places and people and learn about their stories. For creating good photography we must study the world, the interactions happening inside of it, how nature behaves and reacts to humans. We must learn to use our tools. Above all, we must understand and study the light. Photography is an act of exploration – it is a matter of extending our knowledge. The creation of photos and their quality is a secondary element, it comes from the collision between exploration, learning and experience. Sharing these photos comes even later. And yet, years of online communities inverted this flow, turning sharing into the most important step.
We did surrender to major Internet companies and gave them the control over all we do and share. I touched this topic before in my post about blogging and in the post about Instagram. The thing is, we can create and share outside mainstream communities. Internet is made for creating connections among smaller nodes. Blogs can support each other. Specialist websites can connect people. Even YouTube could be something different entirely, if freed by greed, sponsors and marketing. We don’t need to talk to huge numbers: quality in our communication is much more important. And communication is possible. If we have something to say, if we want to try and articulate it, there are ways.
Throwing thousands of photos into the same bucket where millions of people are also throwing theirs is not doing much good to a photographer that wants to communicate effectively. I joined Instagram in 2013, that is 8 years ago, and I had much more valuable feedback from this blog in last 3 years than from being there. If we count the number of messages or likes, then Instagram may seem more alive, but if we look at the content of these events, and we compare that to what the blog produces, then there is no match. With the blog I am managing to talk to people, exchanging information and points of view. And yes, I also share my photographs and get some feedback on them. All of this while basically not promoting the blog and owning it and all of its contents –– without algorithms using it for ads and data gathering, without having to bend to censorship and questionable community rules.
The days of online communities acting like big and effective showcases are probably gone. And I think this could be a good thing, because the quality of interactions originating from them became shallow, and because they promoted bad photographic habits. I look at my Instagram as a simple, small and temporary curated garden, where I add a photo every now and then while removing something else, trying to keep it small in terms of photos I post and people I follow. In reality I just keep it because some clients expect it to exist, and I am running a photography business in the end.
If we really want to share what we do, there are many other ways: publish your own books or magazines and put them on sale. Create your own blog. Create your own YouTube channel. Join some specialist forum that deals with some part of photography you enjoy, like a specific kind of camera or brand. Look for local communities of people actually meeting and doing or discussing photography. Connect all these things together! But first ask yourself: do you need to share? With who? Why?
We were convinced we need to share everything, always, with the whole world, and that we must keep creating content. This is another big lie we were sold, and the profit of that only goes to companies that need our content for their business. The reality is that not everything is meant to be shared, and not everything has to be shared with everyone.
I think we should look at what we do, think about it, consider if sharing it would make us feel good, if others may find it interesting, if there is a value in the act of sharing that photo. This moment of self-reflection inevitably contributes to our growth as humans and as photographers.
We should also consider the fact that sharing is not intended to be always instantaneous. Again, years of social networks taught us to create and share right away, as if the value of a photo was connected to how fresh it is. In reality, your photo is timeless. Take the time to understand it, edit it, refine it, meditate upon it, change it again. This is all part of the beauty of photography. Sharing is a final step that may or may not happen, and there is no time constraint for it.
I am still not sure if mainstream communities like Instagram did good to photography. On one side, they made more people start taking photos and fall in love with the medium. On the other side, they somehow removed value from the photos, gave popularity to extreme body editing with all its psychological and social repercussions, imposed image idealization via software (fake sky, fake skin, fake light, fake colors, etc) and made it harder to share and get discovered and understood. In a couple of years it will become easier to understand this process.
Online photography communities can’t be anymore what they were, because the role of photography in society changed and its popularity made the older sharing models obsolete. This means that we also have to change and find other ways for sharing what we do and finding what others share.
Things would have been much easier if big companies didn’t fight against RSS, killing software like Google Reader, making it harder to subscribe to websites and blog. They don’t want us to live outside social networks, because they can’t control and use what’s outside.
A new photo-centric social paradigm could appear at some point, but in meantime we can explore the possibilities, and see what we can do for sharing what we think is worth sharing, combining all the tools that are available, not expecting a single medium or community to solve all of our needs. I am trying to do this with the blog, with the couple of books I am putting together, and by keeping Instagram and other places as a little side note.
And what is definitely most important, I aim my energies at improving as a photographer, trying to learn every day –– in the end that is what matters.
Sharing outlets come and go, our knowledge and passion are what truly defines us –– and stays.
Note: I deactivated my Instagram a couple of weeks ago, and I will keep it like that for a while. I think it’s healthy to do it from time to time. I’m actually not so sure I’ll activate it again.
Note 2: this post was much longer, I did edit it down to the essentials and it sort of lost the logical flow. I hope you can still find something useful in it.