Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Unsold on Facebook

In the late nineties my extended family set up an account through MyFamily to stay in touch with one another via a central message board. A few years later, some of my high school alumni did the same thing via Classmates. And shortly after that I got involved with several photography-related message boards.

In each case these boards provided an invaluable service. They let me communicate with people all over the world with common interests whom I'd rarely if ever see in person. These were the early days of social media, and I found the connections very useful and enjoyable.

Then along came Facebook, which very quickly assumed the gravity of a black hole. Instead of posting messages to various private message boards, people posted to Facebook. And as more people looked to Facebook for news, more people posted there and the cycle fed itself, to the point where there are now 600 million users. It's become a utility, at least in the developed world. Phone service, electricity, water, Facebook, etc. Participation is expected.

Initially I was reluctant to join, but last year I succumbed. If I wanted to keep up with people I had to, or else retreat to my virtual desert island. So I signed up, and before long Facebook had become integral to my routine. Instead of turning to MyFamily for family news, I logged onto Facebook. High school friends found me through Facebook. Recently, it seems that Facebook has become a primary source of photography news.

The beauty of Facebook is that it's a one stop convenience. It's the WalMart of message boards, offering everything and anything. Family news, hometown news, photo news, you got it, all in one place.

The curse of Facebook is that, like WalMart, it tends to squeeze out the smaller guys. The Myfamily site mentioned above has become relatively inactive. Classmates? Folded into another site. The activity on some photography message boards seems to be shrinking. Why waste time with other sites when you can find it all on Facebook? So gradually the little mom-and-pop online communities on virtual main street are being forced to the sidelines.

The next frontier might be photoblogs. As The New York Times and Ofer Wolberger have recently speculated, Facebook may have begun to supplant blogs as an outlet for daily updates, show announcements, links, and even photography portfolios (despite well publicized caveats). Amy Stein, one of the original vanguard of photobloggers, may have echoed the general trend in recent comments on SIP: "I don’t really read blogs anymore. There is too much noise and redundancy. I mostly rely on the people I trust to find the good stuff and post it to Twitter and Facebook."

Even photoblogs running longer essays, which Facebook cannot totally replace due to space limitations, will often run a Facebook link in conjunction with posts. This further incentivizes the one-stop mentality. You check Facebook first. If a description interests you, you link to the blog for an expanded essay. The photoblog becomes secondary to Facebook, if it hasn't yet been replaced by it.

Facebook is so big that, like the web itself, it has splintered into affinity groups. These serve the same role as blogs or message boards, but they're subsets of the Facebook empire. Sometimes these groups work rather well. Friends of Vivian Meier is a good example. It's a great central clearinghouse for Maier-related links. Five years ago this group would probably have been organized through a blog or discussion board. Now it's on Facebook.

Whether or not Facebook will eradicate blogging is an open question. I'm guessing it won't, but even if it doesn't it has changed the playing field. Andy Adams posed the Facebook v blogging question last summer on —where else?— Facebook. Most commenters at the time guessed that blogging would survive. But eight months is a long time on the internet. Since that discussion, Facebook has gained 100 million new users while the photoblogging community seems to have lost some steam.

Adams has been at the forefront of the shift. He has been quite active on Facebook, using it as a platform either for simple links or to generate extended discussions. His most recent Facebook venture, Flak Photo Network (FPN), is an interesting experiment in community building. The premise is to collect a wide swath of photographers into one place, weed out the non-photo stuff, and form a Facebook bulletin board for photo-related topics. If successful, it would accomplish the elusive holy grail of the internet: a centralized source of focused information.

Has it succeeded? Yes and no. Yes it's weeded out the non-photo posts, but what's left is a little too broad to be useful, at least for me. Do I really need to know about some opening in St. Louis, or that so-and-so is a finalist in Contest X? A Google search for "Photography News" might provide a similarly broad list of tips, and perhaps such a list might be valuable to others. For me it's information overload.

Perhaps that's where photoblogs or sites like HCSP still have the edge over Facebook. They can cater to very specific interests. They are the neighborhood shoe store to Facebook's WalMart.

But I think the main turn-off of FPN for me is that many of the group's listings are self-promotional. On the one hand I see the reasoning. Everyone needs a place to hang their shingle, and a site frequented by photo-geeks is as good a place as any. But as a reader, seeing promo after promo gets old. Instead of a photographer's forum, it feels like the floor of the Chicago Mercantile. Opening! Closing! Buy! Sell!

After reading a few group postings, I decided to have some fun with it. I added my own Buy-Sell.

Note this is a real ad. I do have this truck (my father-in-law's) for sale. Part of what I was playing on here is the sheer diversity of the group. How far could a post be stretched and still be photo-related?

A few days later I added another.

Again, this is a real ad (taken from the local paper). Now I was just being mischievous, to see what reaction I might get. Not much. A few Likes. Oh well.

My next post ran a few days later:

I thought this was suitably mysterious. A helicopter ad seemed like the last thing you'd expect to see in this group. Surely someone would be curious? Nope.

I was. I was curious how people would treat a post whose motivation was inscrutable. Because when it comes down to it, isn't that the premise of art? It doesn't necessarily have a function or purpose or easy understanding. It can thrive (not that it always does) comfortably outside of the market, and it's one of the very few things in life that can.

Time to play on that idea. The last post was a more direct pitch, whether to someone's pocketbook or their inner trickster I'm not sure.

OK, at this point I was probably just being a dick but I couldn't help myself. It's my self destructive streak.

Response was limited. The only reply was from Gordon S., who wanted to sell me an idea on consignment. It sounded like a great idea and it was in good shape too. But I just couldn't do it. I can't make any purchases before that dump truck is sold on Facebook.

As for me, I'm still not sold on it.


bryanF said...

I think Facebook has the potential to be the all in one discussion board but right now it's mainly a distribution channel for me, much like Twitter.

I don't really cruise it for photography news. I prefer RSS feeds and Twitter for that.

What FB is good for is the random stuff your friends find that's probably off your radar. Also pretty decent for short discussions about politics and current events, sometimes photography.

I haven't been able to dive into the Flak Network because right away I notices it was all about self-promotion. Honestly, I really don't care too much about shows. They're great for people, but instead of just blasting out the time and place, why not WRITE about it on your blog and provide some insight into the experience or your work?

Tom Leininger said...

Flak Photo was better before Facebook.

Aline said...

Your sales pitches were the bright spot in a sea of self promotion, and truly the only thing that really caught my attention...plus I'm also selling a 1993 used BMW with 140,000 miles for $1000, sold AS IS to any interested parties.

Michael Kirchoff said...

Sometimes I get lonely :(. I don't touch the settings on Facebook groups, so I get an email for every post that someone makes. Now I'm not lonely anymore. People like me. Yay Facebook :).

Blake Andrews said...

Aline, I don't think that ad passes the photo filter. Perhaps if you posted a related photo it would become photo-related?

Phill said...

I think unless the Facebook overlords fix the currently god awful way in which photos are displayed on their site, it will never fully usurp the standalone photo blog.

g said...

But 600 million people can't be wrong.



Peter said...

Thank you, Blake. It's interesting to read descripions of Facebook. Because thanks to such factors as http://www.electricpig.co.uk/2010/01/06/facebook-privacy-hack-could-reveal-all-your-profile-information/ I'm not going to go there and look for myself.

Blake Andrews said...

If people are curious, this post has generated an interesting discussion over at FPN

Philoxenia said...

I tried Facebook for about a year, but after endless "is a fan of" & "is friends with" I felt like I was wading through confetti, so I bailed.

There is much in life I will likely miss, but the social confetti I think not much.

I check your blog daily for its wit & interesting direction to things I am likely to miss otherwise. I read about three others regularly & that is my limit. I don't know what I am missing is probably accurate & fine with me.

Microcord said...

If people are curious, this post has generated an interesting discussion over at FPN

I clicked on the link and was told:

You must log in to see this page.

because it was Facebook.

I wonder if it's worth taking a look, using the totally fake name I used for Facebook at one time, and the password I used for it. (I never posted a single message or left my fake name -- let alone the real one -- anywhere there, but that didn't prevent self-described young ladies from sending email to my fake self, announcing that they wanted me to be their friend [yeah, sure].)

FlakPhoto.com said...

Insightful as ever, Blake - thanks for the feedback and for being part of this first phase of the Flak Photo Network. The FPN is an experiment in online photography conversation and your criticisms are helping the group identify how to make the space unique and interesting.

If any of you have been following Flak Photo's Facebook page, you know that I love hosting discussions about all aspects of photography - the best part about the FPN is that everyone has the ability to ask questions and spark conversation. There's certainly a place for sharing links and promoting projects, but I think one area where the FPN delivers real value is in the the asking and answering of questions about photography - that's been happening from time to time and it's the start of what could make the place uniquely exciting and less like the Chicago Mercantile ;)

The FPN is a work-in-progress and we'll all play a part in making it thrive. Your post has enlivened the group with comments that are helping us learn how best to collaborate there. I hope you'll stick around to see where it's going...

You can follow the discussion at http://on.fb.me/hIApwR

Blake Andrews said...

(From Miki Johnson:)

Hey Blake. You make a lot of good points, especially about how Facebook has become a kind of Wal-mart clearing house for messages. I think, however, that blogs will continue to be important for quite some time. As I see it, Facebook is a filter system to help me find interesting stories that my friends have already vetted. But I still expect those posts to take me to actual STORIES, and those usually reside on blogs or magazine's websites. To me, Facebook is a delivery mechanism for content, not necessarily a publisher of the content itself, and I think it will stay that way.

As for self-promotion on Facebook, I really wish everyone would just stop it already - mostly because it's not effective. I almost never click on links when people say "hey check out this thing I'm doing!" And I have spent years where finding things that that is my JOB! What people fundamentally don't understand about FB, I think, and what I help my consulting clients understand, is that you have to tell people WHY they should look at your work, and more importantly, what THEY are going to get out of it, not what YOU will. Social media only works if you are giving great information (not about yourself) at least 70% of the time. Once people trust you as a source of valuable content, then when you put up A FEW posts about your own projects, people might actually check them out :)

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