John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Finding Your Online Niche in Photography

finding your online niche

What to do with limitless possibilities

With several million members, many millions of images, and thousands of groups devoted to various photography and community topics, online photosharing communities like Flickr confront each member with an overwhelming ocean of visual stimulation and possibilities for interpersonal encounters. Although members, at least at first, may find these limitless possibilities exciting, they must at some point develop specific strategies for establishing their presence and identity, and for managing their interpersonal relationships. Otherwise, it’s very easy to feel “lost.”


The synergy between experimentation and restraint

As in many large online communities, some members find themselves in an initial stage of progressive immersion, viewing more and more images, establishing more and more contacts, until they discover that they must cut back on the excessive time and energy they are devoting to the community. To maintain a rewarding feeling about their participation, members are challenged to establish a niche in which they consciously and unconsciously define themselves and their relationships. That niche, in order to thrive and avoid stagnation, must reach a stage of ongoing synergy between experimentation and restraint – a cyberpsychological equilibrium in which new opportunities for images and social interactions are tested, assimilated if successful, and discarded if not.

In other words, doing exactly the same kind of photography with the very same people gets boring. Trying to experiment with too many types of images and with too many people makes you feel lost and confused. The right niche involves a balanced equilibrium between the familiar and the new.

Having a purpose, multiple purposes, and conflicting purposes

The niche one establishes is partly determined by the overarching purpose the member assigns to his or her participation in the community. People who join it as a way to share, with family and friends, their life experiences via photographs have a predetermined niche. They may not progress any further into the community. However, if they find themselves becoming interested in the art and science of photography and visual design, they may be drawn into the wider culture of members who are photography and visual design students, aficionados, and professionals – members who are challenged to define the artistic, technical, and social dimensions of their niche. Some members establish and reinforce their niche by joining groups devoted to topics that match their interests and interpersonal preferences. In more rare cases, members use their pages within the community as an online art gallery, without interacting substantially with anyone, resulting in a lowered impact of the community on their niche and a less synergistic equilibrium.

For some members there exists a tension between their different concepts of why they belong to the community. In interviews I conducted with members of Flickr, some people considered it a place to express themselves via images, to learn about photography, and socialize. On the other hand, some members approached the community as a competitive “game” in which the quality or popularity of an image is determined by how many times it is viewed, how many people indicate it as a “favorite” (fav), and its overall “interestingness” as determined by an undisclosed formula designed by the creators of Flickr. A member’s niche and equilibrium can be drastically affected by one’s commitment to the social and educational activities of the community, or to its gaming competition, or to a complex and sometimes awkward juggling of these two agendas. So, for example, if you think of Flickr as a competitive game, then you must comment on and give favs to many other photos in order to receive many in return that will drive up the ratings on your images. But that constant hopping around the community will interfere with developing ongoing, stable friendships.

In more ways than one, joining an online photosharing community means figuring out what kind of niche you want to create for yourself. What type of photography subgroup do you identify with? What kinds of people do you want to hang out with? And what’s your agenda as a member of the community? Addressing these questions will make your participation in the community much more purposeful and enjoyable.

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Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche