Yesterday, my friend Yuko was rejected by the emerging Lensblr community.
I love Yuko’s work, but her photographs apparently did not meet the new bar of quality set by the community’s administrator.
Allow me to quote:
“Now that we’re getting big I will be more picky about what I allow or not.”
And, from the comments section, we have this gem:
“[N]ot everyone should be here for their work quality may not be the best. I’m glad your [sic] taking this decision, I really am.”
While you’re pondering those, let me give you some background. Some of you will know that I have been here before. About two years ago, I began writing a Tumblr blog dedicated to film photography. I worked on it essentially as my full-time job for just under a year before closing it for personal reasons. In that time, it grew to be what I believe was a valuable resource for analog shooters. I had a following of about 2,000 people, among whom were some of Tumblr’s most influential photographers and curators — who themselves commanded audiences in multiples of 10,000. My photographs were not universally respected, but my articles were widely quoted from and reblogged; I was a staunch defender of photography as an art, and of the rights of photographers — for this I was roundly praised and linked. I selflessly promoted the work of other Tumblr photographers. My articles on technique and gear were indexed highly by Google. I’m not saying this to brag; I’m saying it so that you can put my words in the proper context.
What I’m about to say should not be taken as predictabe and inconsequential whining by a small fish (and I am indeed a very small fish; my audience now is a tiny fraction of what it used to be). Instead, what I am about to say should be taken as the accumulated wisdom of someone who has had thorough experience with Tumblr and a small measure of success.
(1) Tumblr is a gamed system.
When you begin posting, it is almost inevitable that you will get sucked into obsessing about your statistics. You will preoccupy yourself with how many followers you have and how many “likes” each of your posts gets. You will begin to act in ways that you believe will attract a greater audience. You will begin to curate your online personality very carefully. You will want to appear to be cooler than you really are. Don’t feel bad about this; it happens to everyone. But do try to resist. Your sense of self, your art, and your happiness will benefit greatly from your outgrowing the Tumblr game.
(2) Tumblr is a popularity contest, and to become popular you must be recognized by the right people.
The Tumblr royalty will show their love in exceedingly small doses. With few exceptions, they have become very picky about whom they will follow. You will do everything you can to impress them, to convince them to follow you, and to like your posts. Your primary objective will be to be reblogged or mentioned by one of them. You will flood their /ask boxes with questions in the hopes that your words will be posted on their hallowed pages. But all of this will not be easy, and you will suffer much rejection and condescension. You will have to be very persistent and thick-skinned.
Take this as an illustrative example: When asked recently by a Tumblr newbie how she could attract more followers, one very prominent photographer replied haughtily, “Be more awesome.” Apparently, this is what the Tumblr royalty consider to be a useful answer to a genuine question.
Or this: on my return to Tumblr, I contacted a number of my former followers to let them know I was back and that I’d appreciate their renewed support. Most of them graciously agreed (thank you!) but a number completely ignored me. And these were people I had championed on my former blog, people whose photographs I had promoted and reblogged. I assume that they are now too big in the Tumblrverse to be concerned with the likes of me. If I, a former well-respected member of Tumblr’s photographic community with actual personal ties to these people, cannot convince them to join me in a new endeavour, how much less chance do you have as a total stranger?
(3) Early adopters — the people who’ve been posting consistently for two or three years — have a near insurmountable advantage over you and will act as arbiters of taste.
These are the people who find themselves as editors, the people who set the “bar of quality” for the various official pages, the guardians of all that should be considered “good art.” It may happen like this: you take what you believe to be an excellent portrait. You tag it with the #portrait tag and hope that your photograph makes it onto the official portrait page. You watch, you wait; nothing happens. You decide to contact one of the editors to make him aware of your work. Still nothing. Then you take a closer look at the portrait page and you notice that it is overrun by pictures of models and celebrities, screen captures, and images scanned from fashion magazines. You notice that the vast majority of portraits on that page are essentially reblogs, and many of them are conspicuously uncredited. You reason therefore that it pays not to be a creator of original work, but rather to spend your days scouring the internet to come up with interesting pictures made by other people. You think to yourself that this is not the kind of work that should be promoted, so you write a polite letter to the editors explaining carefully why the official portrait page is broken. You get no response. Oh well.
(4) The number of “likes” a post gets has absolutely nothing at all to do with its artistic merit.
Without being featured by an editor or picked up by Tumblr radar, the number of likes a post attracts is basically a function of the number of your followers. The smaller your audience, the fewer people will like your work. It’s that simple. Don’t complain that your posts never get more than x likes when your audience is less than 10x. A better way to gauge success is to calculate what percentage of your followers like a given post. For example, if you have 50 followers and your post is liked 10 times, your “like percentage” is 20 %, which is pretty darned good. It means that although your audience is small, it’s very engaged in your work. You deserve to be much more proud of this achievement than the photographer with 10,000 followers whose picture is liked 100 times (for a like percentage of 1 %). Then again, if you’re making these kinds of calculations, you’re playing the Tumblr game (see 1, above) and you should stop immediately.
When a photograph of yours gets only three likes, it’s easy and reassuring to say that number of likes has nothing to do with quality. It’s harder to admit that the same is still true when your photograph gets picked up by radar and instantaneously gets 5,000 likes. Don’t be too quick to congratulate yourself.
The point is: quit worrying about how your photos are received. Just make work that is pleasing to you. You will gradually accumulate an audience that appreciates your art. And you will be so much freer to experiment when you’re not worried about what other people think.
(I am not saying that your work will not benefit from critical review. It most likely will. Take it to somebody specific, somebody whose objective opinion you trust. Pay for the service, if you need to.)
(5) Tumblr’s radar and recommendation engines are broken.
When was the last time you saw something truly remarkable and innovative picked up by radar? In the photo world, the vast majority of the images featured by radar have mass appeal in a pandering, formulaic way. They are to Tumblr what sitcoms are to TV, which would be a waste of time if TV itself weren’t already a collosal waste of time. Don’t make images in the hope of getting picked up by radar. Make your own art for yourself.
Why is it that from the vast pool of available photographers, the same half dozen or so shooters are constantly recommended to me by Tumblrbot. (This only serves to magnify and entrench the enormous advantage of the early adopters.) Doesn’t that little robot have an imagination? Or isn’t it at least capable of generating random numbers? And why would I want to follow yet another member of the royalty who’s doing exactly the same thing today as she was two years ago?
(6) I was here two years ago. Then I took more than a year’s break. Then I came back. So I know what I’m talking about when I say: the Tumblr royalty, for the most part, are doing exactly the same thing they’ve been doing for years.
This is what happens when you have an audience in the tens of thousands. You become beholden to them. I noticed this happening to me when my count was approaching 2,000. Basically, you become reluctant to upset people by changing your ways. You also begin to drink your own Kool Aid. You begin to believe that you’re greater than you are, and that what you’re doing is the shit. The sheer size of your audience convinces you to keep doing the same thing over and over again because that’s what people have come to expect from you and you begin to feel the insecurity of fame. I mean, it’s by doing what you’re doing that you got this big, right? Why would you rock the boat?
Which is to say, don’t concern yourself with artists on Tumblr who have massive followings unless what they’re doing is really special to you. In most cases, the chances they’ll follow back, or like your posts, or answer your questions are low. You will find much more rewarding relationships with people who aren’t too busy, or too full of themselves, to engage with you.
* * *
This is turning into more of a rant than I intended it to be. So, let’s reconsider Yuko’s case. In light of everything I’ve said, it’s easy to understand what Lensblr’s administrator is saying. It goes something like this: I used to be small, so I needed all the help I could get. Now that I’m getting big, I need to restrict access. I am setting myself up as the sole arbiter of taste in this community. Early adopters should be rewarded, and late comers will have to work their asses off to impress me. Now that I have achieved a critical mass, restricting access will make me more desirable and increase my popularity and influence. I will continue to do what I’ve been doing until now. This is how I am going to play the Tumblr game.
I don’t begrudge Lensblr or its policies. If people are drawn to participate, who am I to complain? I do wonder what actual purpose it serves, however, beyond promoting itself. Is it a response to Tumblr’s broken recommendation engine? Does Lensblr aim to be bought by Tumblr? It will be interesting to watch this unfold.
At the end of the day, what I am saying is this: when you begin to post on Tumblr it helps to have a clear appreciation of how the system works. When you are rejected by the royalty, when you lose followers, when photos you think are great aren’t noticed, don’t worry. Never forget that however small your audience, if the people you value and trust appreciate your work, you are already a success. All the rest is gravy.
(Disclaimer: I have not applied to join Lensblr, and I do not intend to.)
I am with Nathan. This is how I know and see Tumblr too and I share the same sentiments about Lensblr. End of discussion.