Cult of Popularity

When you first get started in photography you usually take photos just for personal enjoyment but it isn’t long before the urge to share them with others take holds. You may start off sharing them within a closed group close to you, such as with your Facebook friends. This usually results in OTT praise for your photos. After all, if you are sharing them with your friends, most don’t want to jeopardise the friendship by criticising something as trivial as a photograph, so they pump out a ‘like’, usually backed up with some statement laden with emojis. But, more positively, they may genuinely praise your work because it’s good, or because they want to encourage you to develop this ability.

Whatever the reason, sharing photos within a closed group of friends usually results in significant praise and adulation. With your photographic confidence boosted from this, you then think about taking the next step of sharing them publicly.

Fear and Disappointment

It’s actually a bit nerve-wracking when you first come to take this step. You know in the back of your mind that people close to you may have given you praise just because they are close to you, and the fear and doubts in your mind creep in as you think the general public may not be so complimentary. What if they say the photos are rubbish?

However, regardless of that you take the step and start uploading them publicly to something like Flickr or Instagram. And boom, the fear is quickly replaced by disappointment. The disappointment that nobody takes any interest in your photos. You may get a few views and likes if you upload to Instagram just because it is a frenzy of ‘liking’ activity on there, but in most cases, your precious photos, that your friends so highly praised, just bomb.

As an example, this is the first photo I ever uploaded to Flickr. It’s pretty dull but not too bad. In 6 years it has garnered a fairly dire 441 views, no likes, and no comments.

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Conversely, here is my most popular one on Flickr. A bit twee but a nice photo. Although there is a gulf in popularity, is there a similar gulf in quality?

30167473040_5508207059_b

Rationalisation

Yes, it i disappointing when nobody views your photos, but if you think about it rationally you realise there are millions of photos being uploaded on these sites daily. If you have no followers, are many people going to actually view it in the maelstrom of all these images?

Gaining a Following

After uploading a few photos and with followers not manifesting at a tremendous rate, you realise you have to put a bit of work in to gain a following. You try uploading your best photos and still nothing much. You try advancing your photographic skills to take better photos, and still not much. You now realise you have to do something else to gain followers and popularity. This is the point that you have to start putting yourself about a bit. (to coin a phrase used much in ‘The Sweeney’) A quick search on Google will tell you how to quickly gain followers. It’s easy, just like, comment and follow other users and there is a good chance they will reciprocate. It really is that easy.

Climbing Popularity

All of sudden, you start gaining followers and likes, and people start leaving comments just because you liked their stuff. So you invariably keep doing it, after all your popularity is growing just from a few clicks of a button. Does it matter a shit if you even actually like the other peoples photos? No, of course it doesn’t, just click the like button anyway. This is all about gaining popularity.

Breakdown

Now, I understand that by giving others attention, it draws attention to yourself. That’s how things work. But people seem to feel an obligation to reciprocate in kind. If you like their photo, they will invariably like one of yours. It’s almost an act of courtesy, or something like that.

However, there is where the breakdown in many people’s photography occurs. What is the point in further developing your photographic skills if popularity isn’t solely influenced by this? Just take any old rubbish and whore yourself around.

Now if you can’t see this prostitutional behaviour for what it is and are solely influenced by popularity you won’t further develop your photographic skills much, as there is no need to. However, if you can see how shit this whole situation is, you must detach yourself as much as possible from this need for popularity and focus on your photography, not for others, but for yourself.

But unfortunately it’s not that straightforward. Ultimately, if you are sharing your photos publicly, you are doing so because you want others to view them. You may be able to detach yourself from the white noise of the ‘like’ whores but ultimately it is nice to get something genuine in return. A comment from someone who has taken the time to study your photo and appreciate it, for example.

The Matthew Effect

“The Matthew effect, Matthew principle, or Matthew effect of accumulated advantage can be observed in many aspects of life and fields of activity. It is sometimes summarized by the adage “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” The concept is applicable to matters of fame or status, but may also be applied literally to cumulative advantage of economic capital. ” source:Wikipedia

This is a well documented concept and is most certainly applicable to photography. The more popular your photos are, the more popular they get. Unfortunately, they don’t need to get popular due to photographic quality, as I have discussed. Because of this trait in humans, they gain increased popularity just from being popular. You can see this in all art forms. Just take a look at the shit that’s in the music charts and how popular that is.

How Does this Happen?

People are just people. They like being close to someone or something that is popular maybe because they think it will help their popularity, maybe because they don’t want to be viewed as a pariah. There is screeds written on the Matthew Effect so I encourage you to take a look. Suffice to say, it does seem to happen which creates this Cult of Popularity. People worshiping something, not because of it’s intrinsic value, but just because it’s popular.

This effect is most certainly accelerated in the world of photography by most web sites. Instagram and Google are two notable examples. The more views or likes something gets, the higher it gets ranked in their searches. Thus, it stands to reason, this will snowball it’s popularity. I can understand why they do it. They are private companies who want to maximise profit, so of course they are going to promote the most popular stuff. Instagram seems especially annoying in this respect. When viewing photos from the people you are following, instead of putting them in chronological order, it always shows the popular peoples photos first.

Does Popular mean Better?

I would be quick to answer no to this but we are delving into the realms of subjectivity so there isn’t really an answer to it. Like all art forms, how good a photo is, is highly subjective. How good a photo is is just each individual’s personal opinion, and if they judge the quality of the image based on it’s popularity, which many seem to, then the answer would be yes.

It would be nice if people could see beyond the teachings of the Cult of Popularity and judge these things for themselves, without the coercive influences of other weighing so heavily. You only have to spend 10 mins looking through Flickr or a similar such site to find awesome photos which are not that popular. Similarly, you can find plenty of mediocre photos which are extremely popular…..at least to my personal taste.

How to Progress?

How you progress yourself will depend on what you want to achieve. I am personally pretty tired of trawling through the umpteen photos in my follower list. They all just look the same after a while. I will knock out a ‘like’ to a photo which I really like but since I view the list so infrequently that is quite rare. I am happy to just focus on taking and processing my photos to my own satisfaction. With every day that passes, I care less and less about views, likes and popularity. In addition, I abhor the bullshit of pretending to like something I don’t just to get attention. Although many will see that stand point as a bit stupid, at least it keeps my focus my photos without too much distraction from view counts etc.

However, I doubt many share this view. So if you want your photos to be popular, the primary factor to me seems to be whoring the shit out of them. So snap yourself some average photos of a sunset or something and start putting it about. Just don’t expect your photographic skills and knowledge to develop much taking this route.

Thanks for Reading,

Neil

3 thoughts on “Cult of Popularity

Add yours

  1. It’s ironic how I stumbled on your site searching for my own, trying to see if it gained some visibility in search results! I have chosen quite a common keyword, and hundreds of similar projects popped out.
    Well, your posts really caught my interest and summarize so well the internal struggles of an “online photographer”, be it on copyright, popularity or manipulation.

    I recognise myself as somehow being in the “All Rights Reserved” or “Pure Photography” category, but not in the “like whores”, and thus my pretty new site (opened in march) don’t see many views yet, despite having a bunch of content already (it’s way more of an amateur’s work than yours). I really don’t like social networks like Instagram and the “like game” and may never take that route.
    I could be tempted to enter my URL in your WordPress comments to get organic visits or help with SE crawlers, but won’t. Let’s see how that turns out, taking the hard path, and maybe patience will pay. If it’s not the case, I’ll still have a pretty online gallery to show friends, but I would certainely regret getting out of my way to write in another language without anyone reading!

    Disgressing from the main subject, some very biased personal opinions :
    For copyright, I like the thought of my pictures being on display only, as I already give quite much by allowing the world to see my modest works with great efforts, and don’t want to end up on stock websites or empy shells twitter accounts. I don’t intend to sell anything, but still need to be reassured with a horrendous copyright at the bottom. Certainly sounds selfish said this way, sorry!

    For image manipulation, yours certainly give a stunning impression and are really great. If I know how to do similar things with PS, I like keeping things simple, and transport people in the places I’ve visited “through my eye” (or my camera lens in this case), with this deliberate choice to keep images sometimes a bit dull to imitate what I’ve seen. I’m aware that in no way it reflects reality, but instead the one I’ve chosen to display. However cloning over a big trash bin or an ugly car is welcome!

    Well, I may change my views with time, who knows… I’m still young.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Many thanks for leaving such an in depth response. Sorry for the delay in responding, I must have missed the notification coming through.

      I started the site just at the end of last year. It was initially just meant to be my thoughts and ideas on various aspects of photography such as copyright and suchlike. However, my earlier posts are more technically orientated and include a lot of post-processing tutorials. Although these seem popular I really didn’t want the site to have so many posts like this. Recently I have been aiming the subjects more towards my ‘photographic musings’ as the site was initially meant to be, so I am happy it is moving in this direction.

      It is a difficult balance to strike between advertising yourself and concentrating on enhancing your photographic skills. The longer I have been doing photography, the more I lean towards the latter, but it is really just about each individual getting out of photography what makes them happy. As I said in my post, I just got tired with the hollow ‘like’ culture. I have found however that if my photographs are of a good quality that people will view, like and comment on them without me having to do the same to theirs.

      As for copyright we certainly have different views but my viewpoint is very rare it would seem. I don’t mean to sound overly critical when writing my blog posts and I really do respect everyone’s personal choice. When I started using Creative Commons licenses, I did so because of my personal opinions towards copyright. However, what I found from using this license that people are far more willing to use my work, probably because they don’t need permission and don’t have to pay me. But I occasionally do a google search for my name and it is surprising how many of my photos have been used elsewhere, and I believe the CC License is a big part of this.

      I am quite open about my love of image manipulation. I really got heavily into image manipulation because of my restraints in taking photographs. I would love to have the time to sit out all day waiting for the perfect light and conditions but I work full time and just don’t have the time or energy for this. Because of this, many of my photos were just taken with fairly poor light so I had to try and spice them up somehow, so I turned to various post-processing software. Initially, I used GIMP, then moved onto Lightroom which I used solely for quite some time. Then I started using Lightroom and Photoshop together which gives huge amount of power and flexibility when manipulating images, so I just can’t help but try to get the most out of them. Thankfully, these packages are now on monthly subscription, instead of having to shell out ridiculous amounts of money on them.

      Anyway, thank you again for visiting my site and taking the time to write such an excellent response. I said in one of my posts about ‘my photographic journey’ that I was at a fairly low ebb with photography just now, and how genuine visitors and thoughtful comments from people like yourself really help keep my enthusiasm up. So again, thank you.

      Neil

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I started with Gimp as well! I think the weather is really easier on me where I live, thus we took different routes.
        What’s important is that you keep doing things the way you like. Don’t overthink, your acquired skills will guide you. I’ll be back to see your musings!

        Liked by 1 person

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