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Escaping the wall gardens

Publications are no longer the place where photography is consumed, social media is. The so called professional market has become an infinitesimal portion of the marketplace. The big Internet companies have understood it and are waging a take no prisoners battle to control it. They want it all. They want to be the place where photographs are uploaded and seen ( and shared).

Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Pinterest, Twitter and Microsoft are in a continuous  battle to make their platform as accommodating as possible to photography because they understand that photography is the glue that keeps social media together. Without photography, there is no social media. Google yesterday’s announcement of yet another set of  new photography friendly features collides with Twitter’s announcement of new visual in-stream display. Yahoo is revamping Flickr while Pinterest is adding discovery features. Facebook is not far behind- or in front- while it figures out how to make photography even more relevant in your timeline. photos, photos, photos and more photos. If you are a tech companies these days and you are not, in some manner, in the photo space, you are almost not relevant.

The numbers are here to prove it. Google  + claims 1.5 billion images uploaded a week, Facebook is at 4,45 billion a week, 385 million for Instagram, 9.4 million for Flickr, 30 million for Pinterest and 15 million for Twitter. A staggering amount. each week. There are no numbers to tell us how many of these photos are actually seen by someone but by just assuming the minimum, we are talking about billions. Much, much more than all the images from publications and ads put together. Much, much more than all the images licensed by all the photo agencies in the world, combined.

Exactly like TV, who creates shows to attract viewers who are then sold to advertisers, photography is used to attract traffic, which in turn, is monetized by advertising. But none of these photos come from a professional photo licensing outlets. Photographers and their photo agencies have been completely overtaken by a marketplace shift that is making them more and more irrelevant. Only two companies have understood this and have recently make deals that will guarantee their future relevance. Shutterstock, by providing images to Facebook’s advertising channel and Getty images, by monetizing their content posted on Pinterest.

Shutterstock has practically guaranteed their future presence in the online advertising space by partnering with Facebook. Not only because they can grow with Facebook’s future offering, but also because other social media sites will look to them for similar solutions. Getty, by offering a metadata revelation tool, has found a way to be compensated for their content without charging a licensing fee, but as a extra feature to Pinterest. One that can be replicated easily on any social media platforms. Both are brilliant moves because both make their content, and their services, useful and relevant to these platforms and their users.

Pinterest, a site entirely  made of (stolen) photographs, was recently evaluated at $3.8 billion. Far more than the other “all photos, all the time” site Instagram. Neither have yet  any substantial revenue. Yet, they have managed to attract far more visitors than any existing publication and their content is seen, daily, by hundreds of millions of visitors. Brands have already noticed and are shifting their advertising dollars to those platforms. Away from professional photography and into the seemingly bottomless world of casual snapping.

With their unfriendly terms of use for copyright owners, social media platforms have kept professional photographers at bay. The social media landscape is a death trap for the photo professionals. Ironic for platforms that so heavily rely on photography that they should be the most traitorous to those who make a living from them.  It is almost as if they purposely built a firewall against those who profit from photography. It would make sense as none of them seem to want to share their revenue with content producers. Flickr, via an agreement with Getty Image, is the only one that has timidly tipped its toes into offer a revenue outlet to its members. In this brutal battle for total world photo domination, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see another one ( Instagram ?) soon offering the same licensing service in order to attract more users as well as creating another revenue source for themselves. With 16 billion images, they would, overnight, become the biggest photo agency in the world. Needless to say, others would painfully feel its entry into the market.

We are still a long way before one platform dominates the photography landscape, if it ever. We are, however, very close to a tipping point in image consumption. None of what we have experienced before will be true tomorrow. As machines become more visually literate – able to read and understand images -it will take a much bigger part of our daily language. Because photography contains all the information needed, they are platform/support agnostic. They do not depend on a defined structure to communicate its meaning. We have seen it from print to screen ( where most images are consumed today). We see it everyday when we encounter a viral photograph that has escaped its original posting location and yet keeps all of its initial appeal. Even with the best efforts of the wall gardens, photography will soon become its own platform. For the better or worse. Probably the better.


Author: pmelcher

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