On the Emptiness of Social Media Fame

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Dear friend and fellow streettog,

I went to sleep last night, and woke up this morning in beautiful Leeds, England, and suddenly this story came to mind. I would like to share you this story if you don’t mind.

I forgot where I first heard the story– it is definitely from one of the Stoic philosophers. Unfortunately can’t figure out whether it was from Seneca, Epictetus, or Marcus Aurelius. But anyways, here goes the story:

There was once a very skilled artist, who made the most beautiful paintings, that amazed whoever saw them. However he was quite obscure, and nobody really knew who he was. One day, a man approached him and said to him something along the lines of:

“Master, aren’t you sad or frustrated that you possess this amazing skill, yet people from other countries, continents, and nations cannot see or appreciate your work?”

Upon this, the master artist says this in response:

“I am happy with some, I am happy with one, and I am happy with none.”

(Drops the microphone)

To translate this, the master artist said he was happy with some people liking his work, one person liking his work, or none liking his work (besides himself).

My start in photography

When I started photography, I started off in “social media” in 2006, before Facebook, Flickr, and certainly before Instagram was around. The only type of “social media” were “photo blogs”, where you would upload a photograph a day for people to admire and comment on.

This was before “likes” or “favorites” were mainstream, so the amount of love you would get were to get a lot of comments.

At first, I shot to please myself. I had a little Canon point-and-shoot digital camera, and I loved just taking random snapshots of whatever I found interesting.

Soon as time went on, I discovered all these other photographers on the internet who created these amazing “bokeh” shots, with really high image quality. I wanted to create similar images, so I got a Canon 350D (Rebel XT), and eventually a 50mm 1.8 lens.

Once I started to get more “serious” with my photography, I wanted to share my photos with the world. I wanted them to be loved and appreciated, as I saw them like my children.

My start in “social media”

So when I started off in social media, I had no idea what I was doing. The first obvious thing was to make a photo blog, and to aim to get lots of people to see my work (page views), and to get lots of comments (to feel loved and appreciated).

So after I setup my photo blog, I wondered to myself: “How can I get more pageviews and comments?”

I first started off visiting lots of other photoblogs I admired, and started to leave them meaningful and in-depth comments (with the hidden hope that they would also go back to my photo blog, and comment on my photos as well).

In the beginning, this was brilliant. I made a handful of good (virtual) friends in the photoblog community, and their constructive criticisms and feedback really helped me grow and develop as a photographer.

Chasing fame

But after a while, I started to crave fame. There were tons of “top photoblog lists” on the internet, and I became massively jealous and envious of how many followers and comments they got on a daily basis.

In the beginning, getting even 1 or 2 comments brought me extreme joy (wow some people actually care about my photos!) However once I saw others having 20, 30, or even 50 (!)+ comments, I felt like a loser by comparison.

So my next step was that I really wanted to be on one of these “top photoblogger” lists. A shallow goal I know, but my goal nonetheless.

So I started to visit as many other photo blogs on a daily basis, giving them comments only to hope that they would comment back to me. I was quite sly, I tried to give them enough of a decent comment (3-4 sentences), so it would look like I showed interest in their world, whereas in reality I just wanted them to “follow me back.”

I was lucky that I worked in IT as a student in college at the time (I was around 19 years old) and had several hours to browse the internet when nothing was going on in the office (most of the time).

So I started to go down this rabbit hole, chasing fame. It was damn shallow, and never really brought  me any real joy.

I started to also have higher expectations. For example, my new baseline for my happiness would be 5 comments on a photo I uploaded. If I got any less than 5 comments, I would feel depressed (why doesn’t anyone love me?) If I got more than 5 coments, I would be overjoyed and then seek to get 10 comments as a new baseline.

During this period in my life, I never made any top photoblog lists, but it taught me an important lesson in life: chasing fame is so damn shallow, exhausting, and never brings you any real satisfaction or happiness in life. I was so much happier when I was shooting for myself, and just enjoying myself, rather than seeking external means of happiness and recognition.

Killing the Facebook news feed

About 2 years ago, I was in Istanbul with my buddy Charlie Kirk. We were chilling at his flat, and about to sleep, I was bored and surfing Facebook on my phone. I was mindlessly scrolling through my Facebook news feed, and saw all of my friends living their amazing lives. Some of them were buying new BMW’s, some of them buying new homes, and one of them was sipping a Corona in the Caribbeans.

I saw the selfie of him drinking the Corona, and I felt jealous. I’ve never been to the Caribbeans, and the weather there looked so lovely. I felt the negative sting of envy pervade my body.

At that moment, I mentally slapped myself and told myself, “Wait hold up Eric, why are you jealous? You are in Istanbul, you unappreciative bastard. Don’t you know how many people would die to be in your shoes? Why are you jealous of your friend in the Caribbeans?”

At that moment I knew I had to change something, and that social media was kind of fucking up my perception of reality, and wasn’t good for my mental health.

The next morning, I installed the “Facebook News Feed Eradicator” plugin for Google Chrome. I would have to say, this is the single thing I have done in my life which has made me 80% happier in life (by cutting my feelings of envy from my friends on Facebook).

Think about it: social media is a distorted view of reality. People only upload the highlights of their life, and Facebook curates those highlights. 99% of the time, people have boring and mundane things happening. But through your Facebook news feed, you assume everyone else is having the time of their lives, while you sit at home, eating ice cream, alone and depressed, watching another episode of “Game of Thrones” on Netflix.

Not only that, but I hate seeing “pity parties” or people bitching or moaning about negative things on Facebook. It ends up negatively coloring my thoughts, and I let other people’s drama negatively influence my life and thoughts. I have enough problems and mental stresses and anxieties in my life, why should I take on even more drama from others– especially when my life has so many problems already?

So anyways, going back to this Facebook news feed eradicator. It is quite brilliant. Instead of showing you the Facebook news feed (which is a distraction and horrible for your mental health and well-being, it will show you an inspirational quote. Such as:

“Rule your mind, or it will rule you.” – Horace

You can still use all the functions of Facebook to keep in touch, without the drama of the news feed.

“But what if I still want to keep in touch with friends?”

You still can. Now if I want to cyber-stalk my friends on Facebook, I will go directly to their personal page and see their updates. Better yet; I will send them a message on Whatsapp or Facebook messenger and just say hello. Better yet (if I live close to them), I will ask them for a coffee or dinner.

I think ultimately social media is only useful for one thing: for bridging people from the online to the offline. Some of my best friends I have met online, and ended up spending time with them in “real life”. You can never replace face-to-face communication (Facetime and Skype video come close, but not close enough).

Why I am following 0 people on Instagram

Another experiment I started 3 months ago: I unfollowed everybody on Instagram.

To be honest, I never spent much time on Instagram on the “news feed” as well. I found it to be a massive distraction, and the addictiveness of Instagram is worse than crack cocaine. I would be working on something “important”, somehow fall into Instagram, and for the next hour or so, mindlessly scrolling through images, and liking photos. I felt like a rat pulling a lever to get a hit of dopamine, hundreds (if not) thousands of times.

Another problem: I was following close to 600 people, many of them random people I didn’t know. The problem I made was when I first joined Instagram, I automatically followed people based on who was a contact on my phone or Twitter. Of course I followed a ton of people in the beginning to show them I was also on Instagram, and with the hope they would follow me back.

But once again, there was too much clutter. I was sick of seeing dog photos, cappuccino photos, and what people were having for breakfast. Sure a few decent street photos here and there, but I started to get the feeling that people would upload photos on Instagram on a daily basis (for the sake of uploading and getting lots of likes), rather than sharing their best work. Instagram was the McDonalds of social media; quantity over quality.

So I wondered to myself, “What would happen if I followed everyone on Instagram, similarly to how I installed the Facebook News Feed Eradicator? Would I be less distracted? Would I be happier? What if people thought I was a douchebag (like Kanye West who only follows 1 person on Twitter)? What if people get offended that I unfollow them? What would people think? Would people suddenly start unfollowing me? What kind of explanation could I make?”

In the spirit of being a sociologist (and enjoying “social experiments”) I decided to make myself a test subject. So I thought “Fuck it, I’ll just try it out and see what happens.”

At first, it took forever to unfollow everybody. I wish Instagram installed a massive “unfollow all” option (but of course this is against their financial and advertising ideals). Anyways, after I unfollowed everybody, I did end up pissing off a few people (some of them really good friends). I felt massively guilty, because they asked me– “Why would you unfollow me? I thought we were friends.” And I thought they would understand, after all, weren’t we still friends in “real life?” I apologized massively, and genuinely did feel guilty. I tried to explain that I was trying this “experiment” — and they told me, “Well, I hope your experiment went well, because it cost you a friend.” Ouch.

I then really started to question myself: was this really a good idea? I decided to carry on, because I do believe that you can still be real friends with someone (even though you unfollow them on social media). Even scarier: some people have applications on their phone which notify you once someone “unfollows” you on Instagram. I’m not sure why people would have this application, as it would cause massive depression every time someone unfollows you.

Interestingly enough, I did read one study that “unfriending” someone on Facebook is equivalent to telling them in real life that you are no longer friends. It is one of the worst social “faux pas” you can make.

But going back to unfollowing everyone on Instagram: it was probably one of the (second) best things I did for my mental health. I suddenly felt much more focused, in-control of my own life, and felt like I was able to get off the social media rat race and treadmill.

I wrote in another article that one of the things I try to do is uninstall one application from my smartphone a day. This also means that I try to be active on one fewer social media platform a day. There are loads of social media platforms out there for photography: Facebook, Instagram, Google+, 500px, EyeEm, Tumblr, Flickr, and probably hundreds I don’t even know of. People always ask me which ones they should be on. Now I’m starting to realize that less is more; the fewer social networks you are active on, the better.

In-fact, the only social media I am still “kind of” active on is Instagram. I like sharing photo book recommendations on it (using the #buybooksnotgear hashtag), as well as random life updates or street photography tips. But at the same time, I’m thinking of also trying to cut Instagram out of my life.

The irony of social media is that no matter how many likes/favorite you get, it is never enough. I remember when my goal on social media was to get 100 likes. Then it became 200 likes. Then 500 likes.

Now I get (on popular posts) 1000+ likes. The funny thing is now whenever I get anything less than 1000 likes, I feel like shit. For example I recently shared something on Instagram that got (only) 500 likes. I felt like a failure by comparison.

And what is really a “like” anyways? It is just someone tapping a little heart icon on your photo. It doesn’t mean anything. When you die, you can’t take your “likes” with you. Your “likes” won’t keep you warm at night, or pay your electric bills. Does anyone really want etched on their gravestone: “Here lies John, he had 1,000,000 followers on Instagram.”

Not only that, but there will always be a “new” social media platform. Remember when Myspace was going to conquer the world? Then Facebook took over? Now Facebook is for old people, and now everyone is flocking to Instagram and Snapchat. And after Instagram and Snapchat, there will be something else.

Will anybody care about how many social media follower you had in 200 years? Is the “internet” still going to be around as we know it? It might be Google brain telepathy integrated into people’s minds or whatever. But all the stress, effort, and ass-kissing we do in social media would have been a massive waste of time.

The solution

The solution to all this social media bullshit and obsession with likes,  favorites, comments, and followers?

Disconnect.

Take a break from social media. Start “fasting” from social media.

Apparently “intermittent fasting” is proven to provide a lot of health benefits to people (rather than regularly consuming food, it is better to remove some meals at random). So now, I never eat breakfast (only coffee), have a small lunch (preferably only vegetables), and then splurge on meat in the evenings. And on some days, I will also skip lunch (and deal with mild hunger pangs until dinner). Other days I will try to go vegan the entire day. Other days I will eat massive fatty steaks for the entire day.

But anyways, I give you a challenge: try to go 30 days and abstain from social media. Completely cut it out of your diet. Uninstall Facebook from your phone, and install the “Facebook news feed eradicator” on your browser (if you use Google Chrome). Or find some other sort of website blocker plugin (“StayFocusd” for Chrome, or “Wastenotime” for Safari). Try unfollowing everyone on Instagram, and after 30 days, re-follow those who you really care about. Also try to go without uploading any photos to social media (refrain from uploading to Flickr).

I can guarantee that if you take a break from social media for 30 days, you will be much mentally healthier and happier. You will have less stress, anxiety, jealousy, envy, and dissatisfaction in your life. Not only that, but you will learn to not become distracted with your photography projects, and learn how to make photos that please you, not others.

I will do this with you. I won’t upload anything to Instagram for the next 30 days as well (I just uninstalled it from my phone). I am lucky enough that I shoot film, so I have nothing to show anyways (until I get my film processed and scanned, which might take me another few months). I hope to print more photography books or zines, and not feel rushed to always upload stuff on social media to feel loved and appreciated.

Remember, happiness in life is about subtraction, not addition. So take out social media from your diet, enjoy your fast, and see what benefits it brings you.

I know this will be tough friend, but be strong. Life is all about experimentation, so make a pledge and let’s all do this together!

Love,

Eric

Written @ my friend Liz’s house in Leeds, England. 10:25am, with a nice Americano (abstained from coffee yesterday, I feel much better). Thursday, Aug 20, 2015.

My workspace
My workspace

 

I had a brilliant fish and chips in Whitby yesterday, at “Magpie cafe” (the haddock was bigger than my head) and enjoyed a beautiful drive through the seaside. I highly recommend those visiting England to check out places outside London, and enjoy the countryside. Great for the soul.

Best fish and chips ever, with Liz at "Magpie Cafe" in Whitby, England.
Best fish and chips ever, with Liz at “Magpie Cafe” in Whitby, England.
Drive through the countryside
Drive through the countryside

 

Currently reading: “Dialogues: the complete collection of Seneca” on the Kindle — brilliant, and only 99 cents.

Also two of my favorite black and white photo books: “Gypsies” and “Love on the West Bank”:

Two must-own black and white photoboks
Two must-own black and white photoboks

Free E-Book: The Social Media Blackbook for Photographers

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Hey streettogs, I just finished writing a little mini e-book titled: “The Social Media Blackbook for Photographers“. I have been thinking about distilling a lot of my thoughts on social media and photography– and I hope this can be a helpful resource to you. A lot of the thoughts in the book is just my personal take on social media and how it can benefit you as a photographer. Here is a brief overview of the contents of the book:

  • Chapter 1: Why social media?
  • Chapter 2: What is social media?
  • Chapter 3: The importance of creating value in social media
  • Chapter 4: How to gain more followers
  • Chapter 5: The importance of engagement in social media
  • Chapter 6: Common mistakes in social media
  • Chapter 7: Social media strategies, tips, techniques
  • Chapter 8: Conclusion

This e-book is open-source (share, distribute, re-mix, translate, or do whatever you want with it). You can download it for free below:

Download English

Download Spanish

Thank you to Minerva Romay for translating this into Spanish:

You can also read my other free ebook: “31 Days to Overcome Your Fear of Shooting Street Photography

Read more to also read it directly on this blog:

The “10x Principle”: The Only Difference Between “Success” and “Failure” as a Photographer

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Dubai, 2014

 

I recently read a book titled: “How Google Works” and came across the “10x principle” that Google apparently follows.

The idea is quite simple, elegant, and powerful: to be successful in any field, do it 10x better than anybody else.

A Photographer’s Guide to SEO, Blogging, and Social Media

Hong Kong, 2012
Hong Kong, 2012
Hong Kong, 2012

If it weren’t for my blog I wouldn’t be anybody. I have my blog and the street photography community to thank for my “success” in life.

I’m lucky to be born in a age where one can easily build an online presence with a blog and social media. And of course, I have to greatly thank you, my dear reader, and the street photography for supporting my blog and the beautiful genre of street photography.

On Social Media and Street Photography

Tokyo, 2012
Click to read more
Dubai, 2013

At the moment of writing this, I have over 30,000+ Facebook fans, 13,000+ Twitter followers, 20,000+ Google+ followers, and 12,000+ YouTube subscribers.

People have called me a bit of a “social media phenomenon” at times – and commend me for being so good at “marketing myself.”

I am certainly not the social media guru but I have learned a few things through social media through the years (especially when it comes to photography).

I wanted to write an article on some guidelines I suggest street photographers (and all photographers alike) when using social media:

How Many “Favorites” Or “Likes” Are Enough?

Suits

(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”.

5 Tips How Photographers Can Build Their Online Social Media Presence

Lebanon Arches, 2010

Note: Recently New York Street Photographer James Maher got in contact with me asking for some points and tips regarding building his online social media presence. He noticed that I had a great community backing me up (you guys), and he was curious how I did it. I thought about it long and hard, and came up with this blog post. Hope you guys enjoy!

The modern-day photographer is more blessed than ever having a wide-array of online social media networking tools at his/her fingertips. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, DeviantART, and online Forums/Blogs allow photographers not only to build up their own online social media presence, but also to connect to the rest of the photographic community. The benefits of having a strong online social media presence are numerous. One of the most apparent benefits is that photographers are able to get more comments & critique on their work, which help them develop their own style and composition.

However for an aspiring photographer with no experience with online social media, building a presence can be difficult. In this blog post, I will give you a small summary of my experiences, and hopefully give you information which can help you in the long-run as well.

How I Fundraised $1100 in 3 Days for my Beirut, Lebanon Trip

Thomas Leuthard and I at the end of our Street Photography 101 Workshop in Beirut, Lebanon. 2011
Thomas and I at the end of our workshop
Thomas Leuthard and I at the end of our Street Photography 101 Workshop in Beirut, Lebanon

After teaching my Street Photography 101 workshop in Beirut, Lebanon–I got interviewed by a magazine called NowLebanon. One of the questions that Naziha (the reporter) asked me was how in the world I raised $1100 for my plane ticket to fly to Beirut, Lebanon in only 3 days. My answer for her was (you) the community.