A recent article about planned changes to how Instagram is going to operate made me think about photography online, and about blogs. I’m not sure people will agree, but it seems to me that the boom-and-bust culture that Silicon Valley has created is becoming more and more of a detriment to photography on the net. New sites and/or tools are constantly being introduced as being “game changers” that everybody has to follow lest they want to be left behind (or whatever other overblown marketing speak is being used). These sites/tools are then “updated” regularly, to eventually lose every ounce of what might have made them good in the first place. Then cue the usual articles about how the very site/tool that just a few months ago was so indispensable is “over,” but there is that new site/tool that everybody ought to be looking at. And then go back to the beginning of the cycle.
If that sounds too negative to you, just take Flickr. I was never a big Flickerite, but I know a lot of people that were (and possibly still are) and that were aghast when the site was bought and essentially ruined by Yahoo (a company for which the writing also is on the wall). In the time span of roughly ten years (which isn’t really that much time in the grander scheme of things), the online world has changed massively, and photographers have been trying to keep up with it. Like some sort of traveling circus, photographers have moved from one site to the next to the next to, say, discuss photography or share work.
I honestly don’t know how a serious photographer can justify investing yet more time into yet another online tool after the previous ones have all fizzled out. Given I’m in my late forties, I also have an increasingly hard time seeing why I should sign up for some tool that looks like it’s clearly made for teenagers (for example Snapchat), made and coded by people who aren’t much older (and who are also predominantly white and male). In 2010, Zadie Smith wrote a great piece about Facebook that focuses on some of these aspects — if you haven’t read it, yet, now might be a good time.
Ten years ago, blogging was all the rage. I’m very happy to have been part of what happened back then, to a large extent because experiencing (and being part of) the general excitement that existed among the bloggers was just great. Back then, my main concern was that once corporations would make people move from individual blogs to centrally controlled sites a lot of that excitement would disappear, in part because things would become a lot more homogeneous. That’s exactly what happened once Facebook took over.
In a sense, when I started working on my own blog, most photographers maintained what you could see as their own proto-Instagrams. To write about other people’s pictures or share links was an aberration. Instead, many people posted their own work, one picture at a time. Of course, there weren’t “filters” in the sense of adding something to pictures after the fact. People still used a lot of actual film cameras, often plastic ones that would in camera create the strange kind of effects you now slap on with a “filter”. As a viewer, you would not simply scroll from one picture to the next, or from one photographer to the next, but there was a lot to be said for that. It was a lot harder to merely consume pictures. And individual photographers wouldn’t just be some name with a picture in an environment where everything looked the same.
Another aspect I was concerned about was that ten years ago — much like today — individual bloggers would give their sites their own unique IDs, which is something that would just be incompatible with what a corporation would want. Again, that’s exactly what happened on Facebook. You might be on Facebook (I’m not), but I’ve never heard of someone being known for their profile there.
The enforced uniformity on corporate sites plus the often random seeming changes there (which clearly make sense for the companies) essentially are the complete opposite of what made and makes blogging great. For a while, I was very accepting of the fact that blogging might simply have crested. In fact, blogging itself was embedded in a clearly overhyped boom-and-bust cycle, so even thinking about it seemed like the kind of navel gazing I am not too fond of.
But unlike any of those other sites or tools that came before or after blogging (Livejournal, Myspace, Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, etc. etc. etc.) maintaining one’s own blog is essentially the only one that functioned just as well then as it does now (the underlying machinery is a lot more advanced now, but the general principle and organization have hardly changed). In that article I linked to above, Eric Kim is quoted as saying that “I wish I spent more time blogging.”
The last thing I’d want this piece to be is some sort of “told you so.” Instead, as someone who has been heavily involved in blogging about photography, I thought it would be worthwhile pointing out that we simply have a choice: we can run after the latest fads and buy into the latest tech bullshit coming out of Silicon Valley. Or we don’t. And thinking about blogging really is not just pining for the good old days. I think by now we have seen enough things to assess what is useful for photography and what just adds noise (and funnels more cash into corporate coffers).
Make no mistake, there are still quite a few blogs out there. Some of them are older, some are newer additions since we had that dreadful discussion about whether or not blogging was over. I spend a lot of time each week looking through these blogs, and they cover a wide ground, whether it’s intelligently reviewing exhibitions, discussing photography very academically or in a way that is enjoyable and smart, digging into the bowels of photojournalism and/or documentary photography, or whatever else. I do think I’d enjoy seeing more blogs like those, and I’d also enjoy photographers going back to creating their own sites, to make them their own instead of being just some other name on some boring looking corporate website.
In the end, what this piece is really all about is not which site to use or which tool is cool. I’m on Instagram, and I’m enjoying it while it lasts. In my relatively short time there, they already changed the site many times. Having spent time in the industry fifteen years ago, I can just imagine the gears going in the heads of the software engineers and business people about how to “improve” the experience. In reality most people seem to enjoy the site not necessarily because it’s the most ideal IT site but because of what the maybe non-ideal software does, what kinds of things it throws at you that you could have never thought of. Do I want to only see my “friends'” stuff (whatever the company might think the word “friend” means)? Hell no! I want to see the crazy shit that’s coming out of left field. But maybe your mileage varies, and you crave soulless uniformity.
The key for all of this is who is in the driver’s seat. If you’re happy with being a passenger and with having to change vehicles usually the moment you’ve become a bit comfortable, then stick with Silicon Valley’s boom-and-bust cycle. If that’s not what you want, going back to blogging is likely to give you a lot more agency. If you want to change your blog it’s you doing it, not some people who decide for you that starting tomorrow you will just see things differently, sorted now by what makes best sense for advertizers or shareholders.
And honestly, it just bothers the crap out of me that at the end of what is supposed to be a creative endeavour (let’s pretend all photography is art), it’s then shared and discussed using tools that are anything but creative. Tools made to enrich a small number of corporate CEO’s, tools that serve advertizers. Doesn’t this send the message that at the end of the day, this world of photography is only about that? About the bottom line? About success, here meaning being talked about for that short time period when a link gets clicked on? About generating Twitter “controversies” where five people will for ten minute talk about some “issue” in a thread that’s unintelligible for someone not involved? About “branding” and all that other corporate crap? Where photography is more about how to hustle, about how to sell your pictures and get the clicks than about making them? Is that what we want?
I don’t know about you, but it’s certainly not what I want.