Thursday, May 8, 2014

Into The Pool

Most content I post online is ignored. This post, for example, will probably only be read by a few regulars. A typical graph of blog page view activity might look something like this. Ho-hum, poking along. 3:00 AM and all is well.



It's the same with my photos. I post new ones every day on Tumblr and they too are generally ignored, and I guess I've made my peace with that. I realize I suck at social media, and the fact is I don't even try. My philosophy is sink or swim. I throw the content in the deep end and it's up to that content to survive on its own. Quick drownings are common, but some live. The fact I can never predict which will do what is tantalizing, and usually frustrating.

Of course this is the exact wrong approach online. Content generally cannot survive on its own. Without a boost it's probably going straight to the pool bottom. The next Robert Frank could be out there today posting the next The Americans on Tumblr. Without tweets, relinks or influential plugs, no one will give a shit. Welcome to the pool drain, Mr. Frank. On the other hand, a short plug from Martin Parr can sell out a book in days. Any book at all, it doesn't seem to matter. 

Fine. We all know the game and its benefits and deficiencies. Sometimes the wrong stuff gets promoted, or the right stuff goes unpromoted. And much of the time there's a good match. In any case, the visibility/popularity of online content generally has more to do with platform/promotion than quality. For example this photograph by Zach Klein currently has 233,000 notes on Tumblr, and counting.



Is that a good match? Does the popularity match the quality? I don't know. At least she's made it to the surface. I guess it's a nice photo, but...I just don't know anymore.







This picture by Ansel Adams is one of the most popular photos of all time. It's been transformed into calendars and posters and tote bags and it's everywhere. Many people who know nothing about photography know this image, and they know the name Ansel Adams. Does that mean it's a good photo? I don't know.

Seeing hyper-popular photos like this used to bother me more. What's the secret formula? How do I tap into that? Now I'm ok with it, sort of, but I still wonder. Last week I asked Alec Soth the question directly:
Do you think popularity can tell us anything meaningful about a photo or piece of creative content? If a song is #1, does that mean anything? Or is there a complete disconnect? 
I think we can learn a lot from analyzing popularity. Of course it doesn't mean something is "good". But if provides information.
And Shane Lavalette a few weeks earlier:
Can popular opinion convey any meaningful information about a photograph? Or about any piece of art? 
Art is a subjective experience and things that may not have value to the art world or culture at large are not necessarily insignificant objects or ideas. That said, there are a lot of things we can glean from popular opinion, even just in the basic sense—for example, the way that images or videos go viral or are understood as controversial, problematic, or meaningful by a culture at large. This is a very interesting phenomenon which we are able to watch more rapidly and globally than ever before.
Um, OK then. Neither answer tells us much. Maybe what they tell us is that this is a difficult subject to address without sounding whiny or elitist. But seriously, why do some things become popular while other things don't? Record company executives are paid millions to figure this out, and they still can't. With photography it's even more mysterious.

I saw the film Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me recently. #1 Record and Radio City were as good as any albums made in the 1970s, but no one bought them. Why not? Fuck if I know. But it must've hurt to be Big Star in 1975, to watch Elton John and Peter Frampton run laps around their album sales. It killed Chis Bell, spiritually and later literally. What's in that Frampton and John? What have they got they I haven't? 

Looking around online I'm usually left wondering the same thing. But once in a while I hit paydirt unexpectedly. That's what happened with Monday's 10 Rules of Street PhotographyI sent it out there as usual, sink or swim, then didn't think more about it. 

The next day the page views went haywire. I'd hit some kind of nerve. Within two days it received more traffic than any other post on B in eight years. All of this without any help from Martin Parr. Instead of Ho-hum, poking along, the graph made a beeline to the surface. Spike!



May 6th shows a burst of popularity. Popularity! I've joined the cool kids temporarily. Now if only I could figure out what I've done. I've mixed the formula but with no recipe, and I can't repeat it. In a few days the buzz will die and the hump will pass left, leaving a curve something like this.



The graph above describes any viral activity online. The exact quantity is unimportant. Whether it's a jump of 20 notes or 2,000 notes, the pattern is the same. There is a sudden rush of interest, the attention peaks, and then slowly fades into a long tail

Sometimes the spike is preceded by its own long tail. Shit My Photography Professor Says, sat quietly ignored for three years before it was reblogged recently by POTB, and then leveraged into popularity by content scavenger PetaPixel. Spike! It has ten times the notes it did last week. The content is unchanged. So can notes tell us anything?

I guess the lesson is there's always hope. Things last indefinitely online. Something might sit there for a while before it's noticed. Maybe it hits just the right place and moment. And when that does happen, it's just as if it was created yesterday. The buzz spikes immediately, then fades, leaving a warm glow on everything. 

Photo by Larry Clark

I've never shot heroin but I imagine the pattern is similar — the sharp rush and gradual descent. And in the long run, just as addictive and ultimately ineffectual. 

Come on, regulars. Do you think the shape of that graph is an accident? There are no accidents.

When I started this essay I had no idea I'd write about heroin. Heroin? That's an insurance policy against popularity. What is that doing here? What's in that Heroin? What has it got that I haven't? And should I even worry about it? 


Photo by Ken Josephson

In the end all of the spikes and record sales and dirty needles, and the notes and swimming pools and Parr and the Grand Tetons —especially the Grand Tetons— are beyond my control. I can't worry about any of it. I've just got to poke along, Ho-hum. 

24 comments:

Joseph Bayot said...

I for one am very glad that you toss your content out there. I always enjoy when you post, and I'll certainly miss your blog whenever you decide to step away from it permanently. In fact, I miss it whenever you take an extended hiatus haha

You should publish a book someday man. Even if it's just a complete copy and paste of your blog, I'd still be the first in line to buy it.

Unknown said...

The world is dying for people who can actually write good entries. They may not know it yet, and maybe they never will - that simply doesn't matter because I enjoy reading them. Nice entry.

paul h. said...

You are easily my favorite photography blogger, please keep posting forever!

One tiny addendum to what you said though ... I think that after a huge spike, like for Zach Klein, he probably had a few thousand people click through to his website, made some new connections, sold a few prints. So the spike goes away but his total followers went up, maybe he got invited to do some gallery shows, etc. The spike is meaningless but the actual human connection made via the spike means something

Gordon said...

I think Eric kim posted something about this when he wrote a blog called 25 things I learned about street photography by the age of 25. (or something like that).

Apparently he discovered that people are really into lists.

Hernan Zenteno said...

Advertisers are asking for a reply about that answer from a long time. Include during WWII there was a team that after made some studies created the conductist theory about communication. A lot of other theories followed. In recent times, with all the crazy web thing, blogs, facebook, twitter, etc the lethany suggestion is post without give a breath, more or less. I am against that tendency and I don´t care have few visits and then a rush because someone discovered one thing that is of interest. In your case I think that helped to make more long the top of your mountain the fact that The Online Photographer put a post about your post. This is another common retroalimentation of visits. I want to believe that if some thing have some weight, value, or peculiar interest there will be a moment when this will go out of the surface. The problem is that this can occur like with Van Gogh, he was starving and only sold a painting now his work have a millon value. And a lot of people knows Van Gogh, but is of very little help for him.

whale/mouse said...


B, what a great series of points!

I recently watched the movie 'Happy'(2011) and in it they said that humans are often battling between intrinsic and extrinsic pleasure. In the end it is the intrinsic that actually makes humans happy (probably for evolutionary survival reasons).

Photography is just photography. It can't give you a hug.

That small notion of seeing something differently than other people see it makes me much happier than selling a photograph or getting lots of re-posts. But that feeling doesn't last long enough to put extreme faith or sadness into it. I add it on to a life full or joys and lulls and sometimes lows.

And I think you do to... Do you?

John said...

>>It's the same with my photos. I post new ones every day and they too are generally ignored, and I guess I've made my peace with that.

B where do you post your photos? Online?

Anonymous said...

After a viral spike there's only one thing to do: monetize.

Blake Andrews 10 Rules T shirts.

Blake Andrews 10 Rules fedoras

Blake Andrews 10 Rules coffee mugs

Blake Andrews 10 Rules workshops

Blake Andrews 10 Rules DVDs

Blake Andrews 10 Rules books (but no photos please).

It could keep you in films for years.

Blake Andrews said...

@John, I post them in an undisclosed location deep in the woods.

No, but seriously, I post them on Tumblr.

Stan B. said...

Speaking of Heroin, Lou Reed was once asked when he was gonna write another Wild Side, and he said he had no clue- he wanted to, but had no clue...

Anonymous said...

As Gordon said, people are really into lists. Or in SEO parlance "listicles". People have just become so damn lazy, they're incapable of reading through a properly composed essay, and want everything straight in numbered, bullet form. The content aggregators eat this crap up.

Not to say your post was crap, it was obviously tongue in cheek and I enjoyed it, but it's format was perfect for getting picked up. It was basically the photo blog equivalent of a Katy Perry song.

pepeye said...

Don't be so pesimistic. I'm sure many of your new-found readers will stick around for more funny and intelligent discuss ... Squirrel!

6 ft white rabbit said...

the biggest 1 day spike I ever had on Flickr was when I made a top ten list as the #2 asshole at HCSP.
after Bryan.
Popularity is where you find it.

Anonymous said...

arggh, delete, delete.

Sara said...

Some days ago I read somewhere something that sent shivers down my spine - that the popularity is history in the making. Let's hope not.

UP41 said...

Like my friend commented - you can take picture and write at the same time. I poke in once a while and always find it an enjoyable "trip"

Olli Thomson said...

As a fellow, largely ignored Tumblr user (pixelsandplaces.tumblr.com if you want to take pity on me) I was surprised when Tumblr featured one of my pictures (not a particularly good one) and it promptly collected around 6,000 likes, reposts etc.

Trawling through a small random selection of those 6,000 I came away with the impression that the majority of Tumblr users are slightly melancholic seventeen year old girls.

Irrespective of whether this is actually true or not I've decided to assume that it is since it enables me to dismiss all those people who stand idly by while my pictures drown as essentially unworthy.

It works for me.

(P.S. Apologies for having to delete my previous comment. I was overwrought and it affected my spelling.)

Blake Andrews said...

Due to a fluke in timing, Mike Johnston's TOP posted a link to B yesterday right around the time I posted this essay. So now the long tail has yet another bump in it, and the audience for this post has expanded beyond the regulars. Thanks all for tuning in.

Yes, the previous Top Ten was structured as link bait. All lists are. I think it went along with the satirical nature, and hey, I gotta do what I can to attract eyeballs. So please forgive me the occasional top ten list.

Jon Lau said...

the populous is never looking for quality only the illusion of quality.

It's become dangerous for me, because, almost every time, I immediately dismiss anything popular.

Quality does not equate to popularity, only honesty and loyalty.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting. If it means anything I've been checking your site for posts throughout your two recent 'outages', and treat any post you make as potentially "the last." It's wistful and fun at the same time! Let's keep it going!

Bill Dane said...

Blake - bill

john said...

Your blog is the only blog about photography I read and your images on tumblr are the ones i look after for inspiration.

Cameron Getty said...

Blake, I know this comment is being left on a post that is a year old, but I was curious... do you post all (most) of your photos on Tumblr? I've seen a lot of your own photos posted here, some of your Instax photos posted to Tumblr, some of your photos featured on other sites, and then your writing posted here.

I've come to the conclusion that people, mostly younger people, like a consolidated place for everything -- photos, writing, interviews, etc. I think it has something to do with the 'Internet age', where everything is almost instant. People want everything at the snap of a finger. That's why Tumblr has such high numbers on photos that you've provided, because they saw it in their Dashboard, and it took maybe less than one second to click that little heart (like).

Maybe I'm imagining all of this. I've had my own internal struggle of where to post content such as writing and photos. I love Blogger's archival system, but it's an old platform honestly. Tumblr is new and exciting, and people see your work a lot more (whether the numbers prove it or not).

Cameron Getty said...

Blake, I know this comment is being left on a post that is a year old, but I was curious... do you post all (most) of your photos on Tumblr? I've seen a lot of your own photos posted here, some of your Instax photos posted to Tumblr, some of your photos featured on other sites, and then your writing posted here.

I've come to the conclusion that people, mostly younger people, like a consolidated place for everything -- photos, writing, interviews, etc. I think it has something to do with the 'Internet age', where everything is almost instant. People want everything at the snap of a finger. That's why Tumblr has such high numbers on photos that you've provided, because they saw it in their Dashboard, and it took maybe less than one second to click that little heart (like).

Maybe I'm imagining all of this. I've had my own internal struggle of where to post content such as writing and photos. I love Blogger's archival system, but it's an old platform honestly. Tumblr is new and exciting, and people see your work a lot more (whether the numbers prove it or not).