(A photograph from my ongoing “Suits” project. London 2011)
This is an essay I wrote addressing our obsession with “favorites” and “likes” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, 500px, Google+, photo blogs, and so on. If you have ever felt that you were photographing more for affirmation from others than yourself, give the essay a read. I share my personal experiences and also make practical suggestions in the end how to overcome an addictions to “favorites” and “likes”.
My start in photography
When I first started photography (2006), I remember the joy that I had of taking images for the sake of it, and how I would lose a sense of time when hitting the shutter. My first camera was a Canon point-and-shoot, and it was with me everywhere I went. I didn’t know street photography at the time, so I took photos of things I find interesting in my everyday life. Landscape, my friends, flowers, architecture, the typical stuff.
Over time, I became more obsessive about photography. I knew that although I took photographs for myself, I wanted to also share my photos with my friends, family, and the rest of the world.
Thinking about how to best get my photos out there, I first stumbled upon Flickr, online forums, and photo blogs. Of course at my first opportunity, I signed up for all these services to get my photos out there.
I first shared my photos on these sites as a simple way to showcase and display my work. However I soon discovered the addictive nature of getting affirmation on my photography through these early online social media photography sites.
Whenever I uploaded an image to the internet that I was proud of and received a “favorite” or a comment, it was pure ecstasy. I felt a warm sense of affirmation from others, and having the number “1” in my “comments” section for my photoblog was sure a hell of a lot better than having a “0”.
I soon got hooked on the feeling. After uploading photos to these sites, I would check them several times a day.
When I would check and someone would leave me a comment, give me a “favorite”, or there would be more pageviews, I would feel absolute joy. However when I didn’t get any feedback or “favs”, it would make me feel depressed.
I wanted more. More favorites, more page views, and more comments about my work. My photography became less for myself, and more about self-recognition from others (quantified by numbers rather than anything else).
Over time I discovered the “hidden rules” of getting lots of comments, favs, or pageviews on my photos.
1. The rule of reciprocity
One of the things I first learned was the rule of reciprocity. On Flickr, an online forum, or photo blog, if you gave someone a comment, favorite, or some sort of feedback– you would expect to receive it in return. Therefore the more feedback you gave others, the more they would give you.
2. Publish or perish
Another strategy was to constantly publish at least once a day. This would ensure the chance of getting more comments, favorites, and likes – and even giving you the chance of hitting Flickr’s “explore” that would give you the mystical 100+ favorites benchmark. Not only that, but it would build expectations for people, so they would start following you regularly.
3. Spamming groups
At the time I signed up for as many photo forums as I could, and would publish each of my favorites images to all of these sites. This ensured that I would get more visibility for my work, and would also end up getting more affirmation from others.
Not only that, but I would add my photos to as many Flickr groups as possible, hoping that it would lead me to getting more comments, favs, and views.
Fast forwarding to today
5-6 years ago I would get an average of 1-2 comments on my photos and 1-2 favorites if I was lucky. I didn’t have many people following my work, would get an average of 5 comments on photography blogs on my work, and about 50-100 pageviews a day on my photo blog.
Let’s fast-forward to today. I now have several photos on Flickr that have over 100 favorites (even one or two with over 200). I have close to 10,000 followers on twitter, over 20,000 fans on Facebook (similar numbers on Google plus), and my blog gets several thousands of pageviews a day.
Yet there are times I feel empty about my photography.
What is the problem here? In the past I always imagined once I got a ton of followers, a ton of comments, and a ton of favs it would make me happy for the rest of my life. Or at least I expected that the more favorites, followers, or pageviews I got it would make me happier.
However in my experiences, I have found this to be false.
How many favorites or likes are enough?
One of the reasons I decided to write this post was from Christian Nilson. He wrote a post on Facebook which said the following:
The hunt for clicks, likes and favorites – a curse? I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I catch myself looking at the statistics page of Flickr at least once per day, the same goes for the visitor statistics of my blog. When doing this, I catch myself thinking why? Is it some kind of need for recognition that I’m trying to satisfy? Probably. On the other hand I want to think that it doesn’t matter what others think as long as what I do keeps me happy. Any thoughts?
When I read Christian’s thought, I immediately related with him. Although nowadays I’m not asobsessed with clicks and checking my stats – it is still an issue that haunts me that I am trying to overcome. I write this essay in the hope that if you have experienced the same feelings of “favorite hunting”, this essay will provide you some advice and suggestions on how to overcome it.
Is it possible to have “enough” favorites or likes?
One of the things I learned through psychology and cognitive science is that we have an extraordinary ability to adapt. Whether it is good things or bad things. For example, if we won the lottery, we would be much happier, right?
Wrong. Numerous studies disprove this. Of course if you won the lottery you would be ecstatic for the first few days. You would no longer worry about those credit card bills, those looming student loans, and now you would be able to buy a nice car and house.
However after a year people who win the lottery report the same amount of happiness they did before winning the lottery. Imagine a year after you win the lottery. The Porsche you bought now looks cheap to your neighbors’ Lamborghini, your house small compared to that of Bill Gates, and the amount of emails, phone calls, text messages, and Facebook messages from friends, family, and strangers asking for money is unbearable.
Humans also have great resilience when it comes to adapting to bad things.
For example, we all hear of stories of people who get into traumatic car accidents and become quadriplegics. If we lost all sense of control in our legs and our arms, we would be depressed for the rest of our life, right?
Also wrong. Of course people who become quadriplegics are understandably depressed for the few months after their accident. However when interviewed about a year later, they report about the same amount of self-reported happiness before they suffered their accident. Many of them report how grateful they are of life, how they discovered a new hobby (listening to music or writing novels by voice), and how they are able to empower other people through inspirational talks.
Cognitive scientists believe that the reason we are so good at adapting to situations is because it is a natural coping mechanism. For example, if we were living as cavemen and we lost an arm (I’m certain many people back then did by wild animals) our biology would tell us to go on with life. If we just got sad and depressed for losing our arm, we would inevitably die.
As for adapting to really good situations? I surmise it is because when we are adapted to a good standard of living, our biology instructs us to maintain that same standard (and even strive for a better standard of living. This is why many billionaires still continue no work to earn more money (even they have far surpassed a good standard of living).
So how does this relate to the online social media world of photography?
Being able to adapt to good (and bad) situations also relates to the social media world of photography.
First of all, it describes our never-ending appetite for having more favorites, more likes, more page views, more followers, more contacts, and more comments, etc. More, more, more.
How many “favs” or “likes” are enough?
How many “favs” on our photos on Flickr or “likes” on Facebook enough? According to psychology and cognitive science, there is never enough.
I would agree with the psychologists and cognitive scientists. In my personal experience, even after surpassing 100 favorites on Flickr on a single image (one of my earlier goals in life), I still wanted more. I saw others who had over 200 favorites on a single image (which made my 100 favorites seem like a failure by comparison).
Once my most popular image had 100 favorites on Flickr, that became the benchmark, the standard in which I measured the success of all of my other images.
Whenever I uploaded a photograph that received less than 100 favorites, I would deem it a failure. I wanted all of my new photos to get (at least) 100 favorites on Flickr.
There would be times that I met the goal, which would only make me mildly happy and amused (kind of like how Asian parents expect you to get straight A’s in school). However whenever I received less than 100 favorites on Flickr, I would feel like a failure.
Taking a break from uploading my photos to social media
So what was I to do in this never-lasting quest to conquer Flickr and the Internet with the most favorites of all the street photographers out there? It seemed that as time moved on I would become less satisfied with my photography. My happiness and self-satisfaction would lie on how many “favs” I would get on Flickr and less about how I felt about my own images. I would spend far too much time checking if my numbers went up, and not enough time out shooting.
So what did I do to get over this?
I took a hiatus from uploading images to the internet.
Well, to be completely honest I didn’t decide this. It was something that occurred by-chance.
Around the time when I was feeling a bit overwhelmed by my photography and social media, I got a challenge from Charlie Kirk when I was in Tokyo in December 2011. I think I was having a conversation with Charlie and we talked about how most of the great photographers out there (who pass away) are only know for their 10 or so best images.
Therefore Charlie challenged me to go an entire year without uploading any images to the Internet – and at the end of the year uploading my 20 best images. He said he thought it would be a good thing for my photography as it would teach me to be more disciplined and a better self-editor of my own work. It also made sense to me, as if the masters died having 10 great images, couldn’t I have the patience to last only 1 simple year to produce 20 “good” images?
An entire year? This seemed like a great idea at first. I knew it would teach myself patience and be a good exercise in becoming a better self-editor of my own work. Yet, I didn’t know if I would be able to do it.
At the time, I uploaded a photograph online at least once a day or once every other day. I didn’t know if I would be able to go an entire year without that sense of gratification of getting lots of comments, favorites, likes, page views, etc on my images. It was almost like asking a smoker to give up cigarettes and nicotine. Favorites and likes were my drug.
I asked Bellamy Hunt what he thought about the idea, and he thought it was a brilliant idea. I asked a few others, and they said it was an awful idea.
I then told Charlie I would think about the challenge and spent about a week pondering the idea.
In the end, I decided that it was a challenge that I was up for, and I agreed to Charlie’s challenge. We also decided that the loser of the bet had to buy the other a nice dinner.
Now looking back, it was probably the best advice I have ever been given in photography (thanks Charlie).
The one-year “no upload” challenge
The first thing I did to start this challenge was to publically announce it. I remember mentioning it on my blog in an article, and told my close friends what I was up to. By announcing this challenge publically, it made me responsible for my actions – meaning that I didn’t want to disappoint others.
At first it was incredibly difficult to not upload any photos. I would go out and shoot, and get what I thought to be was a great shot. I’d rush home, post-process it, and prepare to upload it online.
I then had to stop and remind myself: I was doing this challenge and I wasn’t allowed to upload anything.
I still wanted to get feedback and critique on what I was working on, so what I ended up doing was still uploading my photos to Flickr, setting it to private, and marking Charlie as “family” so that he could take a look at my images and give me personalized feedback on what I was working on. Over time, I soon added more of my close friends and confidants as “family” on Flickr – so they could track my progress and give me feedback as well.
Although the challenge was difficult, I had a pretty good roll. I went around a solid 6 months without uploading any images which caused me to lose all urges to constantly check Flickr and check my stats.
However I soon started to get pressure and suspicion from people on the internet, constantly badgering me why I wasn’t uploading any photos. They would ridicule me for this challenge, saying that “no serious photographer did that” and that it was detrimental to my image as a photographer.
Over time, the heat from my critics got hotter and hotter. They continued to prod me to share my photos saying that “I had something to hide”.
I am sad to say that I succumbed to these outside pressures, and prematurely uploaded my photos online. Although I am proud of the projects I recently uploaded (Dark Skies Over Tokyo, Korea: The Presentation of Self, and Downtown LA in Color) I still feel I needed more time to work on them.
After this first onslaught of releasing my images, I felt a huge sense of relief. But then it felt like I was on this “social media treadmill” again. I felt the urge again to always be sharing my images, and sharing with others what I was up to. This led me to leaking many of the projects I was working on. I then once again started using the number of favorites, likes, and comments as a barometer for what project ideas were good or not.
Literally a day ago I realized that this madness needs to stop again. I went into my Flickr stream, did a heavy edit of all of the photos in my stream, and removed a lot. I think for the time being, I am going to take another hiatus from Flickr while I focus on my “Suits” project.
So what is so bad about wanting to get a lot of favorites or likes anyways?
There is of course nothing wrong in itself to want to get people to look at your work through photography social media sites. I want to clarify at this point in this essay and state that I am not against sharing your photos online. Rather, I am trying to advise you from getting to obsessed with online social media and photography. And once again, these are based on my personal experiences and thoughts – feel free to pick and choose what you like.
In my experience I have discovered many dangers of this never-ending thirst for favorites, likes and attention when it comes to social media.
1. The majority of the people on the internet don’t know what a good photograph is
I’m not trying to be elitist when I say this, but most of the people on the Internet don’t know what a good photograph is.
Think about the most popular photos on the internet. They are generally wide-open bokeh shots of random lights in the street at night, HDR photos of sunsets, or selective-colored photos of flowers. Sure from time to time I enjoy nice bokeh shots and think that HDR can be used tastefully, I would say that the majority of popular photos online are over-done. Many popular images on the internet are generally clichéd, unoriginal, and boring. Not only that there seems to be an over-obsession with post-processing nowadays, giving us clown-vomit HDR, over-sharp images, and hideous watermarks.
There is a school of thought that believes in the idea of “collective wisdom”. They believe that the intelligence of a mass crowd is smarter than the individual. While in some regards this model has worked well (popular Wikipedia pages are often found to be more accurate than the average encyclopedia entry) but it also fails many regards.
Jersey shore is one of the most popular shows out there. But it is a good show? The show is certainly entertaining (I’ve watched a few episodes) but I would doubt if had the same amount of poetic directing such as Citizen Kane. But I would argue that the majority of the American public know of (and perhaps enjoy) watching Jersey Shore compared to watching Citizen Kane.
The most popular restaurant in the world is McDonalds. But is it good food?
So instead of listening to what the masses think of your photographs, I believe in the idea of trusting a selective few (whose work you admire and repsect).
For example, getting feedback from a photographer I know and respect means a million times more than getting hundreds of comments from the general public.
If we let the crowd dictate what is good or what isn’t, it makes us lose our own voice. I have several photos on Flickr which I don’t think are very good, but have tons of favorites and comments. I also have many other shots on Flickr which I (and people I know) think are my best shots, but have very few favorites and comments.
2. The problem with marketing
The number of favorites or comments you get on photos doesn’t mean whether you are a good photographer or not. It only dictates how many people follow you and how good you are in marketing yourself and photos online.
When I say “marketing” I mean have an online social presence. There are many photographers who have a strong online following due to the fact that they run a popular blog (like myself), the fact that they have done many interviews online, if they give lots of other people feedback and comments, or if their photos are in popular photography groups.
There are many great photographers who don’t get many favorites or comments online. Does this mean they are a bad photographer? Certainly not.
For example if a photographer has a Flickr page yet has never shared their page with anybody (not even their own mother) and they have 0 comments and 0 favorites it doesn’t mean anything.
Yet we still look at our own numbers and thrive by them. It is a matter of life there will always be someone wit more followers, favorites, and likes than you. It is fruitless trying to chase down that rabbit hole.
3. Social comparison
If we only got 1 favorite on a photograph, we may be discouraged. We might tell ourselves, “Oh man, only 1 favorite? That is pathetic. I see all these other guys with an average of 10 favorites on their images!”
But then the guys with the average of 10 favorites on their images look at the guys with an average of 20 favorites and are discouraged.
Then the guys with the average of 20 favorites on their photos look at the guys with 100 favorites are discouraged.
I certainly don’t need to stay this any more. This is classic sociology, how we compare our success in relative to others. For example, that’s why people who own a $100,000 house in the poorest neighborhood may be happier than someone who owns a $1,000,000 house in the richest neighborhood (all of the neighbors have $5,000,000 houses).
Therefore 100 favorites for someone on Flickr can be considered a success for someone with only an average of 10 favorites per image, whereas 100 favorites can be considered failure compared to someone on Flickr with an average of 200 favorites per images.
How to overcome the endless pursuit of favs and likes
Okay, so if you got this far (I congratulate you for having the attention span) you might be thinking to yourself, “Okay I realized that I am a bit too obsessed with favs and likes when it comes to my photography. I want to overcome it, but what should I do now?” I wouldn’t pose a problem without offering a practical solution. I am certainly not the beacon of knowledge when it comes to the issue, but I offer some advice based on my personal experiences:
1. Don’t upload any photos for a year and focus on a project
Although I wasn’t able to last an entire year without uploading any images to the internet, it was still a phenomenal learning experience for me. Not uploading any photos to the internet taught me patience, and helped me focus on my projects (and not get distracted by favs and likes on the internet).
Therefore I suggest you to work on a street photography project for a year, and upload it to Flickr, Facebook, Google+, 500px, your website, blog, etc at the end. I can almost guarantee this will make you a better self-editor of your own work, make you more patient, and focus on photographing for yourself (not others).
If you need advice on how to start a street photography project, you can see these articles on the subject on my blog:
- How to Start Your Own Street Photography Project
- How You Can Apply Sociology to Your Street Photography Projects
2. Join (or create) a private critique group on Flickr or Facebook
This is another idea that you can do (in conjunction with not uploading your photos publically online for a year). I still believe in the idea of getting feedback & critique on your work to know what to focus on and how to improve.
Therefore by creating or joining a small and intimate group of photographers via a private Flickr critique group or Facebook critique group — you will be more meaningful feedback and critique on your work. Not only that, but they will better learn and understand your work, and follow and guide you through your photographic journey.
3. Aim to get feedback from those whose opinions you respect
As a sociologist I know that at the end of the day, we as humans thrive and need social validation from others. I think that although trying to be too focused on validation from others can be detrimental, we still need a degree of validation from those we are close to, and those we respect.
Try to find a mentor when it comes to your photography. Nowadays this is very difficult to do, but attend a Magnum workshop, take photography classes in your neighborhood, or contact a photographer online that you admire (and ask for mentorship). All great students have even greater teachers that help guide them. Even the greatest photographers have mentors that they trust and confide in.
I write this post not to preach, but to share my personal experiences and frustrations as a way to help you if you too suffer an addiction to “favs” and “likes”.
It is natural for us to want to gain respect and affirmation from others. It is what makes us human. But once we cross that boundary into having only an obsession from numbers, it starts getting dangerous.
Try not to thirst for recognition via the number of favorites, comments, and page views on your photos. Rather, strive to impress your peers, your mentors, and those whose work you respect.
Certainly don’t only photograph to please others. In the end, you should photograph to please yourself. But at the same time, getting feedback and constructive criticism from people we respect will help you strive to get better, take your photography to the next level, and to challenge yourself.
While I am confident in terms of my abilities as a street photographer, my knowledge, and my insights I like to borrow a saying from Socrates: “The only thing I am certain of is my own ignorance”. There is still a lot I need to learn and things I am ignorant of, but I hope that what is contained in this article will help you in your journey in photography (and to a certain degree life in general), as I know it has helped me.