Instagram knows more about photography than Getty Images does. Or Corbis. Or Associated press. Or even Shutterstock. In 3 years years, it has aggregated more information about which photograph works better than the combinations of the best photo editors at any photo agency. It is not just Instagram. Flickr does too, although they might not know it yet ( at least they are not showing visible signs of awareness). And Pinterest. And the many, many tech companies whose job it is to help brands monetize social media and crowd source photography. And there are lots of them.
A photo agency will be able to tell you which image sold the best. But that’s it. It can’t even confirm if, once published, it has been seen by anyone ( chances are, it has) or by how many. And it most certainly cannot say if it had any effect on its viewers. Tech companies can. With a very high level of precision. And they are getting better at it.
Because photography is their bread and butter – even if they don’t license it- , they are putting a huge effort in examining, studying, analyzing, reverse engineering, scrutinizing all of its elements. Even companies like Apple -who is about to become the number 1 camera manufacturer- spends a tremendous amount of time in studying photography. Not to mention Google. In fact, you would be amazed at who is studying photography and what they can tell you about it.
Even companies like Snapchat – once touted as a teen craze fad – have researchers helping on defining what, why and how photography is being used, because whoever solves this will hit the jackpot. A jackpot a million times bigger than what companies like Instagram, Snapchat, Flickr , Pinterest are currently being evaluated at. If it can be solved.
The thing is, there are not looking at photography as professionals would. Or, at least, they do not see it the same way. The first, and main difference, is that they see photography as a communication tool. Like words. A language to interpret. While professionals certainly do not ignore photography as a communication tool, they also see it as a product . The finality of a photograph, for a pro, is to sell it. The finality of a photograph, for a tech company, it to generate more. What they sell is a continuous, uninterrupted stream. They do not care about individual images, they care about scale. A photograph is only as good as it effect on other users.
Which should also be the concern for all pro photographers. But since they don’t have that information, they ignore it. Plus pros do not want any one besides themselves taking pictures.
Pros will tell you that only technically perfect images have an effect while social media companies could show you that it is absolutely not the case. Pros ( at least most of them) will tell you that equipment has a definitive effect on the final image. Tech companies will show you that is also not true. Pros will tell you that you need a website to be successful in photography. Those same companies can prove you wrong, over and over again.
The emergence of data mining in photography is certainly going to change a lot of what we held as golden rules for maybe too long. It will not replace genuine talent, obviously, but certainly help some create better- as in more effective – images. What social media photography is teaching us is to start breaking down the walls of convention and accepted wisdom. To embrace the winds of change with arms wide open in order to capture its quintessence. To start from the end – why is that image successful – and reconsider every step it took to make it. To reverse engineer those images that are so popular in order to understand their power of appeal. To accept with intelligent humility that we know nothing about photography and that it doesn’t belong to a selected group of privileged insiders. It is being remodeled as we speak, and will continue to change, evolve, adapt and grow in somewhat unpredictable directions. And to remember that this uncertainty is a huge part of why we all love it so much.