After years of being a photographer on social media (mainly Tumblr, Facebook, and Instagram) I have come to learn the value of solitude. The road to this realization starts in naïve optimism and ends in a pit of dejection. Purely from my perspective as a creator, it is apparent to me that social media turns the pursuit of art and creativity—an inward journey that leads to a better understanding of oneself—into an online pissing contest.
I may sound like a Luddite—just an old fart clinging to the past, fearing the advent of modern technology. On the contrary, I remain a loyal user of modern photography proliferation technologies. But I do so with a mental shield that protects me from the pitfall of social media: the seduction of the ‘Like.’
Don't get me wrong, social media platforms are an incredible way for creators to get their work out to fans and followers. Before such decentralized methods of media dissemination, their only path would be through the old physical means—galleries, books, and prints. Via these channels, media proliferation is much more difficult for the average upstart creator. That’s where social media comes in, but not without its shortcomings.
The Mob is Fickle
There is a dangerous dark side to being a photographer, or creator in general, on social media—the numbers can take over your creative soul. As time goes on, the number of followers, re-blogs, likes, shares, and on and on… All these things can end up taking over if we are not careful. The game of attention-seeking no longer serves the goal of exposure, but becomes the central reason for an online presence. The numbers are no longer a passive metric, but are now the driving goal.
It gets worse. Ludicrous questions creep into one’s mind: why does this guy have more followers than me? How did this photo get 10,000 likes? Why did everyone ignore my post the other day? Maybe I should focus on work that is more like what’s already popular… maybe if I cater to the audience then I’ll get more exposure… Pride in one’s work turns into despair—why do I even create anymore?
The path to creativity is fraught with fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt as it is. Why add to that by subjecting one’s work to the fickle attitudes of the social masses? It would be one thing if social media communities were at least a bastion of self-development, a place where thoughtful critiques flow and out-of-the-box thinking is encouraged. Instead, it’s an environment where trends cascade through the network like waves in the sea—one the same as the next.
Now, that’s not to say there is no great work out there. Of course, there is. And of course, it can become popular. But for the humble up-and-comer popularity should never be a measure of quality. The pursuit of popularity and acceptance tends to lead away from the pursuit of truth and creative discovery, simply by the fact that popular things have already been done—it’s why they are popular.
Nattō & Popcorn
Nattō is a Japanese foodstuff—fermented soybeans—famous for an odor not unlike hot garbage, a gooey texture, and a peculiar taste. Popcorn is the result of applying heat to corn kernels—simple. Nattō is difficult to appreciate, but it’s healthy and nutritious—popcorn much less so. Once you understand it, nattō provides a complex and rich experience. Popcorn is simple—anyone can enjoy popcorn. Nattō takes effort to appreciate. What does nattō have to do with photography?
Most photos that go far on social media are popcorn. They are easy to consume. Everyone can enjoy them. Nattō photos are those that are not so easy to appreciate. They require the viewer to stop and absorb them—actually use their brain. Consumption behaviors on social media are not conducive to such work. Tiny screens, millisecond viewing times, microscopic attention spans—these things do not allow for audiences to truly appreciate the work.
If you’re goal is to produce popcorn, that’s great! Popcorn is delicious and there is nothing wrong with enjoying it. But if you are producing nattō photos, don’t worry if fewer people react positively to them on social networks. Don’t let that discourage you. Embrace the niche, follow your own path, and perfect your nattō.
Beyond Social Media
Remember: social media is not the end-all-be-all of outlets for creative work. A vast body of work does not exist on the net. Many masters of photography lived, worked, and died well before the first bit of social data made its way to any smartphone. Instead of following trends online, seek out past work and use it to enhance your own skills—emulate the masters. It would be nice to have a mentor pushing and challenging one’s creativity daily. The next best thing is study aspects of great work and attempt to recreate them as practice.
But we can go further. At some point, it can be beneficial to tune out the noise completely and focus on your own work—become a hermit in the woods. No matter how much we look to outside sources for guidance and inspiration, in the end, creative energy comes from within. Truth in art comes from a deep exploration of one’s own interests. Sure, we are molded and shaped by exposure to media in various forms—no one exists in a vacuum. But we ask our own questions, get curious about subjects of our choosing, and pursue the act of creation ultimately on our own.
Breathe the Air
Social media is not evil. It just exists—like air. It’s here to stay and should be utilized like any tool. If you can find inspiration and motivation that is positive, then embrace it. But for those who’ve felt the woes of social media the remedy is to keep your head down—share your work but pay no mind to what’s going on. Stay focused on creating, not accruing numbers.
It’s not as sad as it sounds. Social media allows those who are interested in our work to follow us on our creative journey. But we should not let them dictate where that journey leads us. We should peak into the maelstrom with caution. Gaze upon the stream with weary eyes and then get back to work. Get busy. Work hard. Forget the numbers and discover your own path to creative fulfillment.