Flickr came along exactly when I needed it.
In 2004, I knew I was too immersed in technical subjects, and Flickr motivated me to get back into photography as a change of pace. I loved taking photos when I was in college (mostly of the set-up variety with a couple of friends), but I hardly touched a camera for the next decade. When I first found out about Flickr, not long after it launched, the combination of having a new camera and a potential audience provided me with a rare level of inspiration. I remember walking around downtown Champaign on June 1, 2004, spending two hours entirely focused on taking photos. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have a preferred subject; I just made things up as I went.
This is one of my favorites from that day:
Flickr was pretty raw back then. You could comment on photos, but there wasn’t the concept of favoriting a good shot or the automated interestingness ranking. As those systems went into a place, it was easier to get feedback about the popularity of photos. Why did people like this photo but not this other one? How does that user manage to get dozens of comments per shot?
It took me a while to recognize some of the thought patterns and feelings that I had once I started paying attention to the feedback enabled by Flickr. They were reminiscent of feelings I had when I was an independent developer. I was rediscovering lessons which I had, at great expense, learned earlier. Now I can, and will, recount some of these lessons, but that in itself isn’t very useful or exciting. Anyone can recite pithy business knowledge, and anyone can ignore it too, because it’s hard to accept advice without it being grounded in personal experience. The important part is that you can experience these lessons firsthand by using Flickr.
Create an account and give yourself a tough goal, such as getting 50,000 photostream views in six months or getting 500 photos flagged as favorites. And now it’s a business simulator. You’re creating a product—a pool of photographs—which is released into the wild and judged by people you don’t control. The six month restriction simulates how long you can survive on your savings. Just like a real business, the results have a lot to do with the effort you put forth. But it’s not a simple translation of effort into success; it’s trickier than that.
Now some of the lessons.
You don’t get bonus points for being the small guy. It sounds so appealing to be the indie that’s getting by on a shoestring. Maybe some customers will be attracted to that and want to stick to the man by supporting you. On Flickr you’re on the same playing field as pros with thousands of dollars worth of equipment and twenty years’ experience. You can still stand out, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that your lack of resources that’s used an excuse for lower quality is going to be seen as an endearing advantage.
While quality is important, keep the technical details behind the scenes. Just as no one really cares what language your application is written in, no one really cares what lens you took a photograph with or what filter you used. Be wary of getting too into the tech instead of the end result.
What you think people want might not be what people want. This one is tough. Are you absorbed in things that you think are important but are irrelevant, or even turn-offs, to your potential audience? This is the kind of thing that a good record producer would step in and deal with (“Just stop with the ten minute solos, okay?”), but it can be difficult to come to these realizations on your own, especially if you’re seeing the problems as selling points.
Slow, steady progress builds an audience. You might take your best photo ever…and get zero response. It could be because you’re overestimating its quality: it’s great compared to your previous work, but still flawed in other ways. Or it could truly be great, but you haven’t built up the network of followers to pull in the views and favorites. (That’s the same reason you might see an unknown band perform a brilliant and catchy song from their CD which has sold 37 copies.)
Don’t fixate on why you think some people are undeservedly successful. All it does it pull you away from improving your own photos/products as you pour energy into being bitter. Your personal idea of taste doesn’t apply to everyone else. There may be other factors at work that you don’t understand. Just let it go or it will drag you down.
But don’t take my word for it. Just spend a few months in the simulator.
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